The study presents the first overview of world markets for sea cucumbers from Ecuador. The Galapagos sea cucumber fishery has been banned since 1994 but efforts to enforce the ban have been unsuccessful. In addition, information provided by officials about the legality of sea cucumber exports from Ecuador has been contradictory and exports have continued to be recorded by both Ecuadorian officials and importing countries.
The new findings, published in the TRAFFIC Bulletin this month, come at a critical time as the Ecuadorian government is now developing a management plan for all Galapagos fisheries.
"Continued illegal fishing is posing a threat to local sea cucumber populations and threatening to affect the unique ecosystem of the Galapagos Islands," said Teresa Mulliken, TRAFFIC Research and Network Development Manager and co-author of the study. "It's vital that the government of Ecuador bring the fishery and trade under more effective control and for consumer countries and others to provide assistance where they can."
TRAFFIC found most sea cucumbers fished in Ecuador's waters are destined for East Asia. Taiwan and Hong Kong were found to be the most significant markets, while the USA often acts as an intermediate step between Ecuador and Asian destinations.
Sea cucumbers, most often traded in dried form known as bjche de mer or trepang, are marine animals that range in size from two centimetres to two metres and move by means of many small feet. An important food to Chinese peoples, they are regarded as a tonic food and also occasionally used in medicines. In Taiwan, they are considered principally a banquet or celebration food.
The Galapagos is home to some 14 species of these relatives of the starfish but only one species - Isostichopus fuscus - is heavily exploited. Its spiky body increases its value on Asian markets. The fishery for this species extends as far north as Mexico.
"Action is required not only in Ecuador but also in other Latin American countries where this species is or may be fished," said Martin Jenkins, co-author of the study. "This could prevent the boom and bust' pattern already demonstrated on Ecuador's coast and typical of many sea cucumber fisheries."
Some four million sea cucumbers have been exported from Ecuador since 1992 -- just shortly after sea cucumber fishers began targeting the Galapagos Islands following exhaustion of the supply off mainland Ecuador, according to the study.
The report recommends that the government of Ecuador should be supported in its efforts to halt illegal fishing and to develop and implement a fisheries management plan for the Galapagos. The government should also be encouraged to clarify or strengthen its export regulations to support fisheries management and to communicate these details to other governments so they could help by establishing complementary import controls, where necessary.
For more information, please contact Bobbie Jo Kelso or Teresa Mulliken at TRAFFIC International on tel. +44 1223 277427
1. The Galapagos Islands, made famous by Charles Darwin after his visit there in 1835, are recognized worldwide as an area of immense biological importance.
2. A Special Law for the Conservation and Sustainable Development of the Province of the Galapagos was adopted in March 1998, establishing a protected area including all waters within 40 nautical miles of the outer perimeter of the islands. The law gives specific jurisdiction to the National Park Service to control Galapagos fisheries, of which only local artisanal fisheries will be allowed. The management plan for Galapagos fisheries under development is part of the implementation of this law.