Six years ago, Dzilam de Bravo was a quiet fishing village on the Yucatan coast. However, international demand for a rare dish put this town on the map, attracting workers from far and wide seeking success. That delicacy is the sea cucumber. Correspondent John Holman investigates the stories behind those that compromise their livelihoods for this highly demanded delicacy.
While it may cost up to $100 on a plate in an upscale Shanghai restaurant, the risk it brings to those that hunt this marine animal might not be worth the reward.
Since the onslaught of fisherman and their families moving to Dzilam, local authorities took notice. Legal licenses have become more difficult to obtain, and the season for fishing sea cucumbers is now limited to just a few weeks out of the year. However, these restrictions did little to deter dedicated hunters. While the punishment for illegally harvesting sea cucumbers ranges from a $500 fine to 7 years in prison, some are willing to sneak in to the sea during the off-season, or fish without first obtaining a license. While the Mexican navy is used to scouring Yucatan waters for drug gangs, in recent times their focus has shifted to scanning for illegal sea cucumber fishing. Some have served multiple sentences for their indiscretions, but are still willing to return to the trade for the $3 per kilo profits.
While jail time and hefty fines might seem like enough of a hazard, there are more lasting effects of hunting sea cucumbers that fishermen must face: disability, and even death. Since many of these hunters are untrained divers, the risk of imminent physical danger is much higher. Not only that, but diving equipment is expensive, and many must resort to creating makeshift oxygen tanks or machines. More than 200 divers a season end up in local Dzilam hospitals with decompression sickness, a handful will die.
With the high stakes that stand behind the small animal, is the future of sea cucumber fishing sustainable? According to biologists, with the current rate of sea cucumber harvesting in the Yucatan waters, there in less than 5 years the entire population has the potential to be depleted. Additionally, without the sea cucumber cleaning the ocean floors, other high-demand seafoods like octopus and lobsters will be unable to flourish. Between the legality, the sickness, and the over fishing, it would appear as though it is not.
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Hunt for Sea Cucumber Leads to Black MarketSix years ago, Dzilam de Bravo was a quiet fishing village on the Yucatan coast. However, international demand for a rare dish put this town on the map, attracting workers from far and wide seeking success. That delicacy is the sea cucumber. Correspondent John Holman investigates the stories behind those that compromise their livelihoods for this highly demanded delicacy.
John Holman shares his reporter’s notebook on the ocean journey that was part of bringing you this story.
Follow John Holman on Twitter @mexicorrespond
“There are only three life jackets? But there are five of us on the boat!”
We were about to race out to open ocean in the pitch dark in a small plastic craft, filming illegal fishermen. Producer Diana Ferrero’s observation was all too pertinent. In the scramble to get ourselves and our equipment ready for the 3am departure time, safety had taken a back seat.
All in the name of reporting on Mexican divers hunting for sea cucumbers. The bottom feeder is so valuable, principally in Asia, that fishermen in the Yucatan peninsula are willing to plummet more than 30 meters below the surface of the ocean to find it. Government introduced restrictions on fishing are ignored by many. These men were leaving in the night to get far enough out to escape the law, and other local fishermen who do have licenses.
They run the risk of being arrested, or death. Diving to the depths of the ocean using home-made equipment and no formal training can often be fatal.
Our own inadequate survival preparations included three tins of tuna and some radioactive looking canned sausages snatched by cameraman Greg Allen from a late night convenience store. Our navigator and seasoned sea cucumber diver Damian assured us all would be well as he shone his small flashlight out into the darkness; his only way to keep in touch with the other boats in the small fishing fleet.
It was just one slightly surreal memory from an exhausting but fascinating journey into the shady world of sea cucumber fishing. Earlier in the week I had found myself out at sea reeling in an air hose to try to pull up a young diver; the motor pumping air to him 18 meters below the surface had suddenly conked out. The tenants of journalism dictate that you should stay outside of the situation you are documenting; in that case there didn’t seem to be a lot of choice.
As interesting and, frankly, exciting, as those episodes were, for me another part of our filming defined our trip.
As we stepped into the small house of the Cauich family, the atmosphere was charged. They had just lost Santos, drowned whilst diving for sea cucumber. The whole extended family had gathered to talk to us; angry, bereft. They hoped our film could do something to change a situation in which sea cucumber divers are given no formal training and substandard equipment by the companies they work for, while those higher up the chain pick up the lucrative profits from a booming business. Mexican authorities do little to protect them or to provide for those who lose a husband or a father while at sea.
I gathered their testimonies with the old journalistic guilt; sharing in the grief of devastated people, knowing we would soon leave a desperately sad situation that for them was only beginning.
The mother of Santos was too upset to go on camera, but after we finished filming, she spent time telling us of her pride in her son, her love for him, and her desolation that he had been taken away at such an early age. As she spoke her young granddaughter silently draped an arm around her shoulder.
As I write this with our report about to go air, that scene is still vivid in my mind.
It speaks volumes about families and communities determined to stick together as they eke out a life fishing on this coast, with no one to rely on but each other.
Map of where the hunt for sea cucumbers took place
View Dzilam de Bravo, YUC in a larger map