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On Friday, Hawaii officials passed an emergency measure to protect sea cucumbers after mass harvesting wiped out the invertebrate populations from several reefs off Oahu and Maui. The state’s Board of Land and Natural Resources (BLNR) approved a ban on taking any species of sea cucumbers from state waters for the next 120 days after investigations confirmed that a new commercial fishery was over-harvesting.
“We took the unusual step of fast-tracking this rule to immediately stop the continued depletion of this natural resource,” said BLNR Chairwoman Suzanne Case in a statement.
State wildlife officials began investigating the issue after reports and images circulating on social media showed fishermen removing sea cucumbers from island beaches by the truckload. While collecting sea cucumbers was not previously against the law in Hawaii, a license was required for commercial harvesting. It was not clear whether those over-harvesting the cucumbers had a license.
Sea cucumbers act as “vacuum cleaners,” scouring the ocean floor and removing sediments and other materials, so they play an important role in the health of the ecosystem says Liz Foote, executive director of Project S.E.A.-Link and coordinator of Kaanapali Makai Watch on Maui.
Although Hawaii hasn’t had a commercial fishery before now, demand for sea cucumbers has had a devastating effect on reefs in other parts of the world, says Rene Umberger, executive director of Maui-based For the Fishes. “In so many places around the world [sea cucumbers get] wiped out, and in some places they’ve never recovered, so this is a really big concern,” she says.
Umberger says sea cucumbers are a sought-after delicacy and medicinal product in Asia, especially China.
Ecologists and officials were caught off guard by the sudden depletion of sea cucumbers and Foote first began hearing reports from community members a few months ago. “It’s one of those things that all of a sudden popped up out of nowhere.”
While many people turned out on Friday to support banning commercial harvest of the invertebrates, no one showed up to oppose the rule, Umberger says. “I’m really glad to see the state is acting quickly,” Foote says.
While Umberger supports allowing some exceptions for native Hawaiians to collect sea cucumbers for traditional use, she was in favor of a total ban. “They really should not be allowing any commercial harvest,” she says. “The only take should be for subsistence.”
Alton Miyasaka, acting administrator of the Division of Aquatic Resources, said staff would use the next four months to investigate the situation.
“Since we’ve never seen this extent of exploitation in Hawaii, we need to develop a clear understanding of the impacts on the fishery and aquatic environment,” he said in a statement.
Miyasaka says the information gathered would be used to draft permanent rules governing the harvest of sea cucumbers, and that input would also be sought from stakeholders including native Hawaiian practitioners and cultural leaders.