The detection this week by Indian forest officers of a stock of dried sea horses and sea cucumbers meant to be sent to Sri Lanka has underscored the need to strengthen cooperation between the two countries to check over-exploitation of marine species in the region, conservationists said.
The forest officers seized 100 kilograms of sea cucumbers in Rameshwaram in Tamil Nadu and arrested an Indian fisherman.
In February, the Indian media reported that the Indian Navy seized more than 3.5 tonnes of sea cucumbers loaded into trawlers that were heading to Sri Lanka and in January Tamil Nadu marine police seized 1.5 tonnes of sea cucumbers.
Sea cucumber (also known as sea leech) is a marine creature that lives at the bottom of the seabed with a leathery skin and elongated body that looks like a cucumber. Dried sea cucumbers are used in Chinese medicine and considered a delicacy in East Asia.
Sea cucumber fishing is not banned in Sri Lanka where they can be exported with a permit.
The Ruhuna University’s Oceanography Unit head Terney Pradeep Kumara said the sea cucumber industry in the southern coast was being threatened by unregulated fishing.
“In the past because of the security situation in the north and east, sea cucumbers were not overly fished, but with peace dawning there is over fishing,” he said.
Mannar, Pallimunai, Gurunagar, Kayts and other areas in Jaffna have become sea cucumber-collecting points threatening the species on the Sri Lankan side.
“Removal of sea cucumbers from the marine ecosystem will have a chain effect,” warned marine naturalist Prasanna Weerakkodi.
The consignment nabbed in Rameshwaram contained 2,509 dried sea horses, the Indian media reported. The seahorse lives on sea grasses and dried seahorses are used in Chinese medicine as an aphrodisiac. Therefore, there is high demand for this species in China, Taiwan and the Philippines.
Sea horse researcher Nishan Perera said there was no particular local market for it. Therefore, he believed Sri Lanka only acted as a transit point for re-export.
But environment lawyer Jagath Gunawardena said he believed that sea horse fishing would increase in Sri Lanka with the rise in demand. He said the capture and sale of sea horse for trade was not a prescribed fishing operation as regulated under section 6 of the Fisheries and Aquatic Resources Act.
He said according to the Fisheries and Aquatic Resources Act, sea horses fell within the purview of the Flora and Fauna ordinance where it explicitly says the export of any animal or part of it for any trade is not permitted. He said this indicated there was a clear provision that could put a stop to the sea horse trade.