GENEVA— Nations around the world have voted to adopt critical trade protections for three types of sea cucumbers to curb overfishing and the animals’ steep population declines. The decision was reached during this week’s meeting of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), a multilateral treaty that protects imperiled plants and wildlife affected by trade.
Known as teatfish, the three sea cucumbers live among tropical reefs and seagrass in the Indian and Pacific oceans, and they are a luxury food item in Asian markets. International trade is the biggest threat to teatfish, and a soaring demand has caused populations and fisheries to crash in recent years.
“These unusual and surprisingly cute creatures play an essential role in our oceans in ways we’re only beginning to understand,” said Sarah Uhlemann, international director at the Center for Biological Diversity. “Kudos to the international community for uniting to protect them before it’s too late.”
Teatfish are also among the most sought after of all sea cucumbers for trade. They fetch very high prices in Asia as the dried and then-reconstituted delicacy bêche-de-mer or trepang.
Teatfish are particularly vulnerable to overfishing because they are large, sedentary and occur in shallow waters — making them easy to capture. Teatfish also mature late and require high densities to reproduce, which adds to their susceptibility to population declines. Teatfish also play a major role in the food chain, being the main food source of several marine animals.
Today’s decision will add the teatfish to Appendix II under CITES in 2020. While it does not completely ban trade of the three species, it does require export permits and additional monitoring for international trade. It will also stimulate funding and education efforts for other conservation work. The United States proposed the trade protections, along with the European Union, Kenya, Senegal, and Seychelles. While today’s decision still technically requires a final vote in coming days, the decision is very unlikely to change.