Science - March 10, 2005

Diving for sea cucumbers

It is not only turtles and Darwin finches that inhabit the Galapagos Islands; there are also fishermen trying to make a living in this pristine area. MSc student Edgar Narvaez joined the locals on their boats looking for valuable sea cucumbers, an activity that enrages environmental activists.

Back in his student flat in Wageningen, the Ecuadorian student shows some dried sea cucumbers he has brought back from the Galapagos. Just a few centimetres long, the fishermen on the Galapagos Islands catch these slimy creatures and then cook and salt them, which makes them shrink considerably.

‘The sea cucumber is neither fish nor plant,’ says Narvaez, an agronomist who is doing the Management of Agricultural Knowledge Systems (MAKS) MSc. There are many species and they belong to the Echinoderms like starfish and sea urchins. They live at the bottom of the sea, often attached to rocks or coral.

Coming from the capital of Ecuador, Quito, his time at sea was a new experience for Narvaez. ‘You don’t find sea cucumbers in the markets, and Ecuadorians don’t know how to prepare them to eat. They are caught and exported to Asian countries where they are considered a delicacy. In Hong Kong a dish prepared with one sea cucumber can cost more than 100 US dollars.’ The slimy creatures are also believed to be an aphrodisiac and Asians use them for medical purposes.

The fishermen are earning good money, but environmental activists and managers of natural parks on the Galapagos are not happy. ‘They are worried about the increasingly large catches, that the sea cucumbers may be becoming extinct and that they will be blamed for this,’ tells Narvaez who learned this by interviewing park managers and members of environmental organisations, such as the Charles Darwin Research Station.

The hunt for sea cucumbers only started about fourteen years ago in the seas around the Galapagos Islands, but already catches have started to decrease. Harvests have declined from a peak of over 4 million sea cucumbers per year to about 2.7 million at present. Narvaez thinks this might be a sign that the species has been over-fished, but he also believes that the environmental activists are putting too much pressure on the fishermen. ‘Some park managers want all fisherman to leave the waters, but I think this is not right and not realistic. They have to seek a compromise.’

The fishermen are actually willing to make changes, Narvaez found. ‘They are willing to fish for other species or to switch to other activities like tourism. But the fact remains that they earn far less if they have a job like waiting or cleaning in hotels.’

There have already been some violent clashes between environmental activists and fisherman, and Narvaez expects that the conflict will escalate. The people of the Galapagos Islands have to take good care of the natural diversity, says Narvaez, but he adds another point in favour of the fishermen: at least the revenues go to the local inhabitants of the islands, and not to big international companies like tour operators or hotels. / HB

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