BY: Ahmed Sabaa Ellil – Ihab Zeidan

In March, environmental protection police in the Red Sea province seized  a smuggler in possession of large amounts of sea cucumbers, , The  Egypt Independent reported.

Although trade of the endangered species is banned, these incidents occur frequently.

Looking at the Egyptian press archive over the past 10 years, we have seen a lot of news about the frustration of the authorities of Hurghada, Sharm el-Sheikh and Cairo airports as there have been multiple attempts to smuggle large quantities of dried sea cucumbers out of the country, most of which were on their way to China via parcels.

Sea cucumber fishing threatens fishermen’s source of income

Overfishing of sea cucumbers on biodiversity in the Halaib and Shalatine region (far south of the Red Sea) has in turn affected other species of marine life in this area, causing the income of fishermen working in this area to decline, according to Osama al-Sayed, a fisherman in Halaib and Shalatin.

“I sold my boat after 30 years of work, now I am unable to support my family, the fish have dropped dramatically, and the cost of fishing has become higher than the return,” he said, his words filled  with sadness.


Now, many impurities in the sea water obscure the bottom, which is only 2 meters from the surface, Osama told us that 15 years ago, he used to be able to see sea cucumbers at a depth of 15 meters below the surface, when they were still abundant.


His was one of the 70 other boats that were docked at the beach without work, including at least 10 boats that have shifted from fishing activity to recreational trips, due to decline in catch, according to a group of fishermen in Halaib and Shalatin.

The Red Sea is a biodiversity hotspot, but sea cucumber numbers are plummeting

The Red Sea has long been recognized as one of the hotspots for global biodiversity, home to many endemic species  of marine organisms, according to a scientific study published in in Nature, but this is changing.


An  FAO  report, released in April 2009, revealed that sea cucumber stocks (Astichopus multifidus) are under severe pressure throughout the oceans, and varieties of high commercial value are at risk of extinction in most parts of Africa.


A study published in January 2019 by Mohammed Hamza Hassan, a researcher at the Suez Canal University, revealed that the number of sea cucumbers  in the Abu Ghosun area of the Red Sea  decreased by 82.6% between 2000 and 2016,  registering a decrease in the number of 14,000 to nearly 7,5,00 in 2006, the number fell to only about 2,5,00 in 2016, and existing species fell from 13 species in 2000 to just 7 in 2016.


The study monitored the decline in total biomass recorded from approximately 10,000 kg in 2000 to approximately 5,500 kg in 2006, which reached 1,500 kg during 2016, attributing this decline primarily to overfishing sea cucumbers, although all species were affected by the practice.


There were about 23 species of sea cucumber in the Red Sea, the most famous of which are , both species listed as now endangered by , the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora which has established measures to curb the excessive international trade in wild species on the brink of extinction.


research study from 2019 showed that Holothuria atra was recorded  to be the most abundance of all species, with 2,560 sea cucumbers  in 2000, falling to 1,740 in 2016 with a loss rate  of 67.9%. As for Holothuria scabra, this was estimated to number around 1,300 in 2000, and this fell to 200 in

 2006,disappearing completely in 2016.Actinopyga mauritiana also  disappeared, registering 520 pieces in 2000 and falling to 180 in 2000. It disappeared in 2016.Bohadschia similis fell from 700 pieces in 2000 to 360 in 2006 and disappeared completely in 2016.

Bohadschia argus, Stichopus horrens and Thelenota ananas also disappeared, registering numbers of 680, 840 and 960, respectively, in 2000, falling to 440, 160 and 100 in 2006, and disappearing completely in 2016.


Dr. Mahmoud Hanafi, professor at the Faculty of Science, Suez Canal University, and scientific advisor to the Society for the Conservation of the Environment in Hurghada (Hepca), added that sea cucumbers can only reproduce if they are in groups, because sea cucumbers reproduce by broadcast spawning while standing close to each other. Overfishing has depleted population numbers so greatly that sea cucumbers still remaining in the sea exist at distances from each other, thus depriving them of opportunities to reproduce and survive.



Sea cucumbers play a key environmental role in the Red Sea

Astichopus multifidus is a marine organism of the echinodermata phylum, which includes starfish and sea urchins. It is considered an important species for food chains in coral reefs, which many species, such as starfish, crabs, turtles and seabirds, feed on.


As Osama and other fishermen in the Red Sea have noted, the decline in sea cucumbers has had consequences for the marine ecosystem, as confirmed by research and scientific studies.


Dr. Asma Hassan, a researcher with the National Authority for Remote Sensing and Space Sciences based in Cairo, says that sea cucumbers are an important component at the bottom of the food chain, and their disappearance poses a serious threat to the entire food chain, on which many marine organisms depend for their survival. She explained that the disappearance of an organism at the bottom of the food chain is extremely dangerous for the biodiversity of the Red Sea.

Asma added that the presence of sea cucumbers is critical to the health of their habitats, as it is an animal that crawls on sandy surfaces and coral reefs and feeds on food particles mixed with sand and silt. Some types of sea cucumbers flip sand when they try to bury themselves in the sandy ocean floor, keeping the sand healthy. The disappearance of sea cucumbers thus causes pollution of seawater, causing the water to be less clear than it used to be.


Hanafi explained that the sea cucumber digests bacteria, dead algae and microorganisms, and by eating and excreting sand they provide coral reefs with calcium carbonate (CaCO3), which is essential for the survival of reefs. Their waste thus helps algae and coral reefs thrive.


Australian researchers have found that sea cucumbers play a key role in saving coral reefs from the effects of climate change, as they reduce the harmful effect of ocean acidification on coral reef growth. “When sea cucumbers address sand, natural digestion in their intestines increases pH levels of water on coral reefs where they defecate. This runs counter to the negative effects of ocean acidification, and the resulting ammonia waste when sea cucumbers digest sand also enriches the surrounding area, providing nutrients for coral growth,” quoted Professor Maria Byrne, the director of One Tree Island Research Station on the Great Barrier Reef,in 2012.


“We urgently need to understand the impact of the removal of sea cucumbers and other invertebrates on coral reef health and resilience at a time when coral reefs face an uncertain future,” Byrne said, referring to the additional risks of overfishing of sea cucumbers to coral reef growth and, in turn, the biological health of the sea.


Reasons for increased demand

Sea cucumbers are a much-sought after delicacy in some countries of the world, particularly Asian markets, and according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of  the United Nations, Asia-Pacific countries consume  between  20,000 and 40,000 tons per year. dried and then re-hydrated for many cooking purposes, pickles are made in most countries of Asia, and in France and Spain it is used as a separate dish or as a side for main courses. There is also a developing market for the use of sea cucumbers in the pharmaceutical and cosmetic industries, and they are used to produce


The desire for sea cucumbers continues to grow because of its alleged medical benefits. In traditional medicine it is believed that there are several benefits to using sea cucumbers, such as fighting carcinogens, especially breast cancer, prostate and skin cancer, that it is beneficial for heart and liver health, reducing high blood pressure, reducing cholesterol, reducing triglyceride density, and improves the function  of  the liver and kidneys. They are also considered to be antimicrobial and to strengthen the immune system. Some use it to control blood sugar levels, or for weight loss purposes.


The reporters spoke to one of the people who collects, dries and sells sea cucumbers. He sea cucumber as a remedy. The merchant initially refused to talk to us he told us that he sells one kilogram for $70 (1000 Egyptian pounds), and he can provide any amount we need.

The trader says he cooks, salts and dries the sea cucumber, then stores it in certain ways, until he sells it.

He would hand it over to us inside Hurghada, and we would be responsible for transporting it to where we want, referring to the

Demand for sea cucumbers is growing. One kilogram of sea cucumber  in the Red Sea can fetch hundreds or thousands of dollars, with each species varying in value, size and  handling, ranging from $5 to $800 (£90:15,000) per kilogram of dried sea cucumber, according to a tour of online shopping sites offering dried sea cucumbers for sale.

In fact, the average global price of sea cucumbers increased by 17% between 2011 and 2016, and the world’s most expensive species decreased in number by up to 60%, making it rarer, and therefore sea cucumbers grew in value over time, encouraging illegal fishing.

This increases competition among fishermen and traders for the remaining animals, which live at deeper depths (the species at small depths have been exhausted within the areas where it is present in the Red Sea, causing many accidents and deaths of untrained fishermen hunting for these prized specimens.

Gangs hunting sea cucumbers

Gangs specializing in overfishing of sea cucumbers are active in the Red Sea, in violation of Egyptian laws, resolutions and international conventions, causing significant environmental damage to biodiversity and food chains in the Red Sea, destroying the marine environment and losing thousands of fishermen their only source of livelihood.


There are 5,000 fishermen with work permits in the Red Sea region, according to statistics from the General Authority for Fisheries Development.


Osama (a fisherman in Halaib and Shalatin) says that the decline in fishing revenues and the higher fishing costs than the profit it makes have led many fishermen to abandon the profession and sell their boats, while some fishermen have resorted to working with these gangs, which operate illegally.


Last December, these two investigators conducted a field tour within some areas known for the presence of sea cucumbers to determine the nature of the situation on the ground, including the Halaib triangle and Shalatin (the southernmost red sea on the Egyptian-Sudanese border), during which we heard testimonies from some fishermen that groups of traders from Fayoum province (1,000 kilos between Shalatin and Al-Fayum) were carrying out illegal fishing operations in the Red Sea.


Fishermen say that there are groups specializing in sea cucumber fishing only, numbering about 10 gangs within the Halaib region. Each gang consists of approximately 15 people, who practice sea cucumber fishing at great depths, using harpoon gun guns,  because overfishing has depleted  sea cucumbers on beaches and shallow depths, and they have to go deeper than 40 meters and within 5 to 10 kilometers of the seashore. And they do this by diving only using oxygen tubes.


Fisherman Osama al-Sayed revealed that some members of these gangs die every year as their lungs explode because of the great depth they dive into to catch cucumbers, but they continue to hunt in even deeper depths each year.


Dr. Mahmoud Hanafi, professor of marine science at the Suez Canal University, says most of these people are not trained to dive and therefore there are many diving incidents, occurring only in January and February leading to deaths and paralysis.


“The large profits these gangs make from the proceeds of smuggling sea cucumbers make them risk everything in order to collect as much of it,” Osama says, adding that these gangs are active during official fishing breaks, which are imposed during the mating season, especially in May.


Hanafi from the Suez Canal University, says sea cucumber fishermen use hunting rifles that affect coral reefs, which are home to fish laying their eggs, and when they die, they affect the life cycle of fish reproduction, affecting fishermen’s fisheries and livelihoods.


There were constant skirmishes between sea cucumber fishing gangs and fishermen who lost their livelihood. The latest quarrel between them in last September resulted in damage to a fisherman’s boat, and a group of intermediaries had to intervene to resolve the dispute amicably. When the fisherman refused, the gang y offered to pay for the purchase of a new fishing boat and compensate him with an additional amount so that he would refrain from complaining to the police, according to fishermen in Halaib and Shalatin, who often resolve customary disputes in the region.

How do gangs deceive and evade the authorities?

The fishers we spoke to showed us how sea cucumber fishermen work. The gang members get on a regular boat with a fishing permit early in the morning with the necessary equipment and food, before it departs from the dock. They then move to another boat without official registration which awaits at sea.

It is on the unregistered boat that they begin their mission to catch sea cucumbers, and after the completion of the hunt, their catch and equipment are landed at a remote part of the coast to escape police surveillance, after which the licensed boat returns to the dock.


Gangs in the Gulf of Aqaba

Unlike Halaib and Shalatin, the two journalists observed an increase in fishing activity in the northern Red Sea, specifically in the South Sinai region, during a field visit. We had heard from local fishers that illegal fishing gangs from other provinces are active in certain seasons, mostly in March, April and May, and that they use dynamite, electricity and underwater hunting rifles. But South Sinai fishermen said they face these gangs in the water and immediately contact the security forces who then arrest these gangs immediately.


An official with the South Sinai Environmental Affairs Agency spoke to the investigative journalists on condition of anonymity, saying that even in Ras Mohammed Egypt’s first nature reserve, which prohibits any kind of fishing inside it, illegal fishing operations are carried out.


He revealed that during his time in the Red Sea reserves, they had seized approximately six or seven sea cucumber fishing hauls during the last five years, during which time they had confiscated very large quantities of cucumbers and immediately returned them to their environment.


As for the legal proceedings against these fishermen, the official explained that the Environmental Affairs Agency reports any fishing activity within the reserve to the police, and writes a report against the violators, and then submits it to the public prosecutor’s office for investigation.

Coronavirus pandemic increases environmental risks

The pandemic exacerbated environmental risks to the marine environment as a result of the sudden drop off in the number of inspections and seizures during attempts to smuggle sea cucumbers out of the country, which encouraged the activity of these gangs, now operating in greater safety.

According to who asked to remain anonymous, all activities of the agency were suspended during the pandemic, due to general closure conditions, and inspection campaigns were completely stopped. He emphasized that in normal days, they would conduct three patrols a week, increasing to daily patrols during the fishing ban and sea cucumber fishing seasons.

Local fishermen said the activity of sea cucumber fishermen increased during the pandemic, doing a lot more environmental damage to the Red Sea.

However, there are no recent records to substantiate their claims.



How to cope with the crisis

Since 2000 , Egyptian law has banned the hunting, circulation, trade or export of sea cucumbers abroad, in accordance with The President’s Decision No. 102 of 1983 to adhere to the International Convention on the Protection of Endangered Wild Species (CITES), and in accordance with Environment Law No. 4 for 1994 and its amendments, laws protecting marine life, ministerial decision No. 1150 of 1999 implementing the Cites International Convention, and the decision of the Minister of Agriculture and Land Reclamation No. 1566 of 2007 to prevent the export of sea cucumbers , according to Dr. Mahmoud Hanafi, Professor at the Faculty of Science, Suez Canal University.

Lawyer Mahmoud Safwat clarifies that after arresting fishers who collect sea cucumbers, the police write a report and confiscate the quantities of sea cucumbers in his possession.

He states that if the sea cucumbers are still alive, they are returned to their natural environment by environmental officials,

Traffickers are imprisoned and fined tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars, as a result of the environmental damage they cause. The fine is estimated by an official of the Ministry of Environment.

However, researchers such as Mohammed Hamza Hassan, a researcher at the University of Suez’s School of Fish Resources, says the ban on sea cucumber fisheries has had no impact on the recovery of depleted fish stocks; in fact, fisheries have expanded since 2000.

“We have shortcomings in enforcing existing laws, as well as weak manpower to monitor and oversee nature reserves and fishing grounds in the Red Sea. The number of people working for natural resource protection agencies is very small, and they are unable to cope with all these local gangs whose activities are driven by the prospect of large gains,” says

He stressed that the overlap of the terms of reference between the Province of the Red Sea and the ministries of agriculture and environment, which are the supervisors of the Red Sea, causes the lack of coordination of efforts between them, and the failure to apply the law strictly, each of which has a different view of the other. He pointed out the need to unify th

The Ministry of Environment responded to our questions that legislation is needed in order to unify the supervisory body.

In his 2019 study, Fish Resources Professor Hamza Hassan suggests that raising awareness among fishermen involved in illegal activity may help ease the situation.

For fishermen like Osama, unless the situation changes, the future remains uncertain. Osama was forced to sell his fishing boat and work for a fee on a recreational tourist boat, in order to secure a fixed income, after many years of low and uncertain fishing revenues.

Another group of fishers followed his lead after they too lost hope that the fishing profession would provide them with a return that would meet the needs of their families. Other fishermen decided to turn their fishing boats into recreational boats, as Khaled al-Dabaa did, but feared that recreational trips would also stop.

With high pollution rates in the region, along with the disappearance of sea cucumbers, coral reefs in the Red Sea are suffering, causing the sea floor to change color and significantly reduce the number of ornamental fish that were thriving there, a major attraction that, for now, still attracts hordes of tourists to the Red Sea.


This report was prepared with the support and oversight of the Earth Journalism Network (EJN) under the Global Ocean Reporting Project.

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