MAHE ISLAND, THE REPUBLIC OF SEYCHELLES — Diver Ulrich Banboche packed the schooner on a recent morning to go out to sea in search of sea cucumber. To catch these prized bottom feeders, the 29-year-old will plunge 30 to 35 meters down in the warm opal waters of the South West Indian Ocean.
Sea cucumber, the small vacuum cleaners of the sea floor, are distant relatives of starfish. They have been pursued by divers in the Seychelles for more than 100 years, with reports of exports from the late 1800s. The creatures are highly prized as delicacy, folk remedy, and aphrodisiac, especially in Asia. For most of the 20th century, the sea cucumbers could be found just off the shore and reefs, and the quantities fished were sustainable. But over the past two decades, sea cucumber fishing has developed rapidly in the Seychelles, mostly due to high demand on the international market, especially from China, leading to overexploitation of stock.
Sea cucumber catches taken in Seychelles waters peaked in 2012, and since then they have declined steadily. A recent sea cucumber stock assessment, supported by the World Bank-funded South West Indian Ocean Fisheries Governance and Shared Growth Project (SWIOFish), resulted in the introduction of quotas. The World Bank-funded effort aims to arrest further declines and prevent the rapid collapse that is common to these fisheries globally. Financed by the World Bank's IDA Fund, the Global Environment Facility, and other partners, SWIOFish aims to support countries maintain or increase priority fish stocks and the benefits that they can provide, with a focus on benefits for poverty reduction and food security.
The significant filtering role that sea cucumbers play in the increasingly fragile ocean ecosystems is only beginning to be understood. They can be found feeding, or vacuuming the sea floor off Seychelles’ island shores —though not in the copious numbers of a
The sea cucumber species that are the most prized in Asia—flower teat, white teat, and prickly red—are also overexploited and endangered. Once the catches have peaked and are on a downward trajectory, it is unlikely that management interventions, other than complete closure of the fishery, can rebuild stocks since reproduction is already greatly impaired.
In Seychelles, SWIOFish supported the Seychelles Fishing Authority to strengthen the sea cucumber co-management advisory committee with improved data collection and collaboration with skippers and divers for the more recent assessment with buy-in from the fishing community. SWIOFISH projects are also supporting the fisheries of Madagascar, Seychelles and Maldives, Comoros, Tanzania and Mozambique.