Dried sea cucumbers for sale at a market in Hong Kong. (Photo courtesy of OceansAsia)

Dried sea cucumbers for sale at a market in Hong Kong. (Photo courtesy of OceansAsia)

Cool as a sea cucumber: B.C. researcher exposing organized crime’s underwater tentacles

Documentary on south Asian marine poaching spurred by work of Teale Phelps Bondaroff and team

Sea cucumbers are common. From nearshore shallow waters down to the depths of the deepest trenches – they inhabit nearly every corner of the planet’s oceans.

Yet, soaring demand has created a multi-million dollar black market for the lucrative blobs, according to one British Columbia researcher.

Teale Phelps Bondaroff, the Greater Victoria-based director of research for marine conservation organization OceansAsia and an expert on illegal fishing and marine wildlife crime, was in the spotlight following the premiere of a new Undercover Asia documentary July 31 featuring his research.

The documentary is part of an investigative journalism series aired on the Singaporean public television station Channel News Asia. Pirates of the Seabed highlights Phelps Bondaroff’s investigation of the poaching and smuggling hotspot in the Gulf of Mannar between India and Sri Lanka.

Through interviews and undercover work, the Saanich resident explores the murky world of criminal gangs and follows the supply chain all the way to Hong Kong, where illegally-harvested sea cucumbers are eaten as a prized delicacy and used in traditional Chinese medicine.

“What’s really interesting as a conservationist is seeing organized crime groups trying to diversify and enter this industry.”

Phelps Bondaroff identified and analyzed 120 incidents of smuggling and poaching between 2015 and 2020. During that period Indian and Sri Lankan authorities reported seizing over 64.7 tons of sea cucumbers with an estimated value of U.S. $2.84 million.

Unlike illegal shark fin, fish maw or abalone harvesting, sea cucumber poaching is one of the lesser-known – and consequentially more neglected – forms of wildlife crime. But that doesn’t mean it can’t lead to some detrimental impacts that threaten marine ecosystems and species worldwide, Phelps Bondaroff warned.

“Sea cucumbers play a critical role in marine ecosystems, acting like earthworms of the sea by cycling material in the seabed and playing an important role in nutrient cycling. Sea cucumber crime threatens species and ecosystems, but it also undermines good governance and steals from legal fishers and governments.”

He ultimately hopes the documentary can place more pressure on government authorities to step up protective measures and perhaps more importantly, increase public awareness. And while there’s little evidence of sea cucumber-related crime occuring in British Columbia, Phelps Bondaroff said it’s a critical reminder of the work necessary to protect species that inhabit our waters back home.

“You don’t protect what you don’t know.”

RELATED: You want me to eat what? From giant sea cucumbers to sea urchin

RELATED: B.C.’s wild seafood exports snagged in Beijing’s recent COVID-19 panic

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