Muddy Waters: Dalian's Sea Cucumber Trade and Its Impacts (August 2011) (Ch)August 24th, 2011
Sea cucumber, a relative of the sea urchin and sea star, normally live peaceful lives on the ocean floor. When a sea cucumber senses danger, however, it frightens off predators by expelling its entrails. But no amount of entrail expelling will ward off the biggest threat this echinoderm now faces: human predation for food consumption.
Pacific Environment released a new report on the sea cucumber farming and trade in the northern Chinese city of Dalian, the capital of Liaoning Province. Edited by Pacific Environment Senior Fellow Wen Bo, the report covers trends in sea cucumber breeding, trade and consumption and the environmental impact of sea cucumber farming. Interviews were conducted in Dalian's supermarkets, specialty stores, farmers markets and farming locations.
China has consumed sea cucumber for hundreds of years and today stands as the world's leading importer of sea cucumber. Dalian is the largest sea cucumber trading hub in China, with over fifty companies marketing their products, and astonishingly, over 1,000 sea cucumber farms. The sea cucumber industry in Dalian is estimated at $1.6 billion per year.
Research institutes along the China's northern coast began artificially breeding sea cucumbers over fifty years ago and gradually expanded the scope and scale of research. During the last twenty years, declining sea cucumber populations became the impetus for rapid advancements in mariculture and a corresponding surge in consumption.
As a result, the natural habitat of Dalian's sea cucumber population has essentially collapsed. Large coastal wetlands in Dalian have been converted to make way for the sea cucumber farms, which pollute surrounding waters. The wild population of the Japanese Common Sea Cucumber in Dalian is now close to extinction. The city also imports large quantities of sea cucumber from North America, Japan, Russia, Southeast Asia and South Africa, putting enormous pressure on the wild populations of various sea cucumber species in those regions.
Consumption of sea cucumber in China is tied to medicinal traditions. In Chinese, sea cucumber is called "ginseng of the sea" as it has high nutritional value and has been used for centuries to treat a variety of ailments. Though sea cucumber enterprises advertise "natural" farming practices and high nutritional benefits, farmed sea cucumbers' medicinal value is likely diminished by the excessive use of antibiotics. Nevertheless, consumer demand continues to grow as the public lacks a clear awareness of the environmental and health impacts of the production process.
Pacific Environment recommends increased governmental supervision of sea cucumber farming and trade in Dalian to ensure protection of the wild sea cucumber population. Muddy Waters is one important step in educating the public about the sea cucumber and the threats humans pose on this curious creature.