Published 11th February 2021
Demand for luxury food in Asia driving threats to high-value marine species in Africa
Cape Town, South Africa, 11th February 2021— A suite of TRAFFIC reports into high-value African marine products highlights yet another burgeoning, under-reported, unsustainable, and illegal trade that threatens the long-term survival of key marine species and the potential for sustainable human development.
Sea cucumber trade From Africa to Asia
Simone Louw, Markus Bűrgener
TRAFFIC’s policy brief A response to trade in high-value marine products between Africa and Asia summarises studies into seahorse, sea cucumber, and fish maw (dried swim bladder) trade; painting a picture of population declines, inadequate regulation, stretched law enforcement, and local communities impacted by illegal and unsustainable catch and trade.
Many coastal fishing communities across the continent, as well as those on the banks of Lake Victoria, rely on sustainably harvesting these products as a source of revenue. However the growth of illegal trade is not only impacting vulnerable communities, it is also starving source countries of potential trade revenue, and threatening the future sustainability of the international trade.
Along with shark fins and abalone, sea cucumbers and fish maws are highly-prized, luxury seafood products consumed as symbols of status or wealth. High demand, especially from east Asia, has resulted in an expanding marine product “gold rush”, with more than 80% of African coastal states now exporting fish maw to Hong Kong Special Administrative Region alone.
As the trade in fish maws, sea cucumbers, and seahorses from Africa to Asia increases in volume, we simultaneously see significant discrepancies in the reported imports and exports of products linked to these taxa.”
Simone Louw, Project Support Officer at TRAFFIC and author of the reports
“This warrants urgent investigation, as it indicates significant levels of unsustainable and illegal harvest and trade, which is having a detrimental impact on target marine populations, and the local fishing communities that rely on them.”
From a biodiversity perspective, sea cucumbers and many fish species harvested for their bladders are essential for the healthy functioning of marine ecosystems, with population reductions having a knock-on effect on food-webs.
Sea cucumber fisheries provide a vital source of employment for fishers and their dependents throughout marine product supply chains, and across many African countries.
In Tanzania and Madagascar, coastal communities are heavily dependent on sea cucumber fisheries, with community members, including women and children, involved in the catching, processing, and drying of sea cucumbers.
This dependency on sea cucumber trade makes these communities economically vulnerable to the impacts of over-exploitation and illegal trade. In Madagascar in particular, fishers are already having to move from village to village as sites lose their viability.
Yet, although sea cucumbers are caught and exported from more than 30 African countries, only six countries have reported trade in the last 10 years.
Under-reported and illegal trade or harvest is especially prevalent in Madagascar, Kenya, Tanzania, and South Africa. In Tanzania, sophisticated smuggling networks exploit inconsistencies in legislation between the mainland, where trade is banned, and offshore Zanzibar, where it is not, by moving illegally harvested sea cucumbers for transit into international trade supply chains.
Increasing international trade has resulted in two sea cucumber species (Holothuria fuscogilva and H. nobulis), that occur in the Western Indian Ocean, being listed on CITES1 Appendix II in 2019. A sea cucumber species occurring in Africa, H. scabra, is amongst the continent’s highest value marine products, with an average retail price of USD369 per kg.
The new CITES listing requires customs officials across east and southern Africa to identify these species from other non-listed species and grant export permits to adequately regulate international trade.
“Sea cucumbers may not look especially exciting, but these high-value species are in decline across the continent (see CITES CoP18 Prop.45). They continue to be exploited by organised criminal networks at the expense of marine ecosystems and sustainable human development,” said Camilla Floros, Lead of TRAFFIC’s ReTTA project, which funded the study.
TRAFFIC’s policy brief A response to trade in high-value trade in marine products between Africa and Asia reveals to customs and enforcement agencies of exporting African states of the need for closer attention on these three high-value marine products.
A combination of increased regulation and closer trade scrutiny, such as the creation of specific HS codes and investigations into reporting discrepancies between African and Asian countries/territories, is urgently needed.
“Sharks and rays garner comparatively high levels of conservation and enforcement attention, as they should, but marine species such as seahorses and sea cucumbers are no less important to protect. They play a vital role in maintaining a healthy marine ecosystem, which in turn provides opportunities and sustenance for the communities that rely on them,” added Simone Louw.
sea cucumber species are threatened with extinction, with many fisheries having collapsed in recent years
Hong Kong SAR
is the largest importer for sea cucumber products in Asia—importing approximately 56 million kilogrammes over the past 8 years
33 African countries
catch and trade in sea cucumbers, but only 10 of these have reported so in the last 10 years
for more information:
Melissa Matthews Global Head of Communications