Red Alert: The new “Black Gold”; Mexican Sea Cucumber Population Decimated by DTOs

Latin America

Yaqui for Borderland Beat from: Quartz

                            It is not that new, but yet another “Black Gold”, the Sea Cucumber
                                                    “Fueling Piracy and Smuggling”
                          This quote did not include poaching, which is the most important link
Tijuana, BC / San Ysidro, CA                    
International Sea Cucumber Kingpin implicated in new smuggling case:
When Wei Li walked across the southern US border into San Ysidro, California in September, he told US border officers—twice—that he had nothing to declare. He was lying.

An X-ray of Li’s bag detected an “anomaly,” and the officers looked inside. According to a search warrant application filed in federal court, they found 46 sea cucumbers weighing about 2.5 pounds.

                                    The “black gold” fever : Sea cucumber in sauce, China


It turns out the illegal Sea Cucumber trade is a serious problem: 

Sea cucumbers, a protected species, can sell for up to $3,500 a kilo in China, where they’re eaten as a delicacy and are believed to have medicinal properties. The market has become so lucrative that Mexican media reported in 2014 it was “fueling piracy and smuggling” to the extent that “cucumber-related crime” had become “worse than drug trafficking.” In 2015, a group of men overpowered armed guards outside a refrigerated warehouse in El Cuyo, a town along the Yucatán, and stole 3.5 tons of pre-cooked sea cucumber being stored there. See below, ie keep reading.
“We’re seeing sea cucumbers that are being concealed inside vehicles, hidden inside compartments of vehicles, pedestrians carrying across small quantities of sea cucumbers—that we believe are being consolidated into larger shipments on the US side and shipped out to Asia,” a US wildlife enforcement agent told a reporter in 2017.
Sea cucumber populations have been decimated across Latin America as a result. In Mexico, in particular, sea cucumber stocks are nearing collapse. The trade has fueled widespread social conflict. Wildlife inspectors trying to clamp down on it are regularly attacked. Rivals have been known to torch each other’s fishing boats. And at least 40 people, with large profits on their minds, have died while diving for sea cucumbers in recent years, either by staying underwater for too long or ascending to the surface too quickly at depth .
Note: Most of the Sea Cucumbers are taken by free divers or what is known in Mexican waters as “hookah divers”. The fishermen have an air compressor on board their pangas with a “mangera” or tube for the “diver” to breath through to stay at depth for some period of time. It is a highly dangerous method of harvesting the bottom of the sea floor, with much greater risks than say , scuba diving, which is not without any risk, by any means. However, “hookah divers” have many added dangers to their methods including breathing carbon monoxide, no safety or rescue equipment on board, etcetc.
In Washington State, an organized sea cucumber poaching ring overfished the species by 250,000 pounds, according to prosecutors. A court sentenced the leader of the crew to two years in prison and ordered a $1.5 million fine. Last May, a former US Border Patrol agent was sentenced to 30 months in federal prison for his role in smuggling $250,000 worth of sea cucumbers into the United States from Mexico. A father-son team, which ran a San Diego import company, admitted in 2018 to illegally smuggling sea cucumbers worth some $17 million over the course of at least two years.
Scientists say sea cucumbers are essential for the environment, acting as the ocean’s de facto filters. They play “a primordial ecological role,” marine biologist Hakima Zidane told National Geographic last year. “They’re like a purifying species for the ocean.” They are also known to help preserve coral reefs.
After his arrest, Li—who imports and exports seafood out of his home in New York City and goes by “Johnny”—agreed to speak with investigators. He said he had been in Mexico for 17 days meeting with colleagues and potential business partners. Li said a friend named Kevin Li (no relation) gave him the sea cucumbers, and told him they were “in season” and presented “no problem.” Sea cucumbers, actually, are protected under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) and require special permits to handle.
Agents discovered through a background check that Kevin Li had been stopped at the US-Mexico border in June for attempting to also smuggle sea cucumbers into the United States. Li told investigators he met Kevin through his friend Alan Ren, a New York restaurateur. Ren, Li said, is “the boss” and sent him to Mexico “to assess the quality of sea cucumber for potential purchase and export.”
As it turns out, authorities had previously sentenced Ren to 10 months in federal prison for conspiracy to smuggle commercial quantities of sea cucumber into the United States from Mexico. Agents looked through the call history on Li’s cell phone and discovered “numerous” calls between Li and Ren during the 17 days Ren was in Mexico. Their search also turned up photos of various species of sea cucumbers on Li’s phone, a UPS receipt for an undeclared shipment of sea cucumbers, and a picture of an aircraft hangar-sized storage warehouse near Tijuana that Li said he visited “to assess the viability of storing product there.”
Li, who was arrested but has not yet been charged and does not have a lawyer listed in court filings, couldn’t be reached for comment. Michael Hernandez, the attorney who represented Ren in his prior sea cucumber smuggling case, did not respond to a request for comment.
In another incident:
A barge with 10 armed men broke down in the mouth of the Puerto El Cuyo ,Yucatan State and raided the three guards outside a refrigerated store on the outskirts of the town. Inside the ships there were no drugs or works of art. Three and a half tons of precooked sea cucumber and in the process of dehydration were found stored in the warehouse. They stole the entire harvest of already poached Sea Cucumbers.
It is not an isolated incident. A few days later, the federal police found 17 TONS of these echinoderms at the Cancun airport and so could follow a trail of cases that bring us  to today . In recent years, the traffic of this endangered species (whose price can reach $ 3,500 per kilo ) has not only grown to the point that already generates “more arrests than the narco, plagiarism and extortion together” in several Mexican states.
That, in short, it is not a particularly graceful statistic.
The sea cucumber, a close relative of the starfish and sea urchins, enjoys a high culinary consideration in countries like China where, in addition, is believed to have numerous culinary and aphrodisiac properties. It is simply a real world delicacy.
And, as is expected, that has consequences. Today, there are sixteen species of sea cucumber critically endangered , endangered seven nine in vulnerable situations , according to the International Union for Conservation and Nature
All this for the intensive extraction of holoturias worldwide.
An intensive extraction made without order or concert. Because, as noted by Abigail Bennett , associate professor of Fishing and Wildlife at Michigan State University, “this creature went from being just a worm on the seabed that divers completely ignored to become something they called ‘black gold’ in just a couple of years. ”
In five years, catches in the Yucatan went from 260 metric tons per year to just 14 . Few human-driven extinction processes occur in such a short period of time. And perhaps the most dramatic thing is that the pressures of international networks show no signs of contention.
Again, international traffic:
Without going any further, a few days ago , one of the largest known smugglers of sea cucumber was stopped at the US border with 46 pieces, ie sea cucumbers,  while trying to walk through customs control. Already back in 2017 , the border between Mexico and the United States had become a pier of live or dehydrated echinoderms for trying to pass them hidden in cars or in the clothes of passers-by.  It is a phenomenon that increases steadily.
International traffickers  return to do their thing. We have seen the rhino , we have seen the pangolin and so we are seeing with the sea cucumber; goodbye Vaquita porpoises , Totoaba bladders are worth more than a species. Think about that, let it sink in. It seems that it is time to assume that international control mechanisms do not work as well as they should and need replacing. Otherwise, it is unclear how long can the world continue keeping the pace.

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