Sea cucumbers are a popular delicacy throughout Asia. On the international market, they sell for hundreds of US dollars a kilo, but Indonesian divers who supply them earn as little as 20 dollars a day; they risk their lives and are becoming paralysed because of bad diving practices.
All Simeulue photos by Roni Bintang.
Aidil Kam from the Indonesian island of Simeulue became paralysed after diving for sea cucumbers for only five months. He died eight months later, aged just 19.
As he lay for months on a bed in the family home, Aidil’s condition deteriorated; his family couldn’t afford the medicines that might have kept him alive.
Aidil had gone night-diving and did what hundreds of fishermen do every day: he went down too deep, and stayed down for too long. When he returned to the surface, he could no longer walk.
All the sea cucumber fishermen in Simeulue, off the northwestern coast of Sumatra, put their health and lives at risk every time they dive. They use the “hookah” system, relying on makeshift equipment with no proper filters.
The divers are connected via lengths of tubing to a single air compressor on the boat; they dive up to 40 metres deep for an hour or more at a time. The compressor lies next to the boat’s petrol engine, so the divers also breathe in compressed carbon monoxide. When they come back to the boat, their bodies are saturated with nitrogen, and this can lead to paralysis.
When deep-sea divers return to the surface, they are supposed to “off-gas”, gradually releasing the nitrogen that has built up in their body tissue and bones. If they don’t do this, the nitrogen bubbles get into their joints and can reach the nervous system and the brain.
According to a census carried out in just two of the eight sub-districts on Simeulue, 23 sea cucumber fishermen have been paralysed. Some recover and go diving again; others don’t. There are hundreds of divers in each district.
Aidil, who lived in the village of Lataling, said he didn’t realise the risks he was taking; he didn’t know how to dive safely.
Local diving instructor Scott G. Williams says 30 metres is the deepest the divers should go, and they shouldn’t stay at that depth for longer than 15 minutes. “They should be diving for just 10-15 minutes, taking frequent safety stops on the way back up to the surface. They should then take an off-gassing rest period of two to three hours on the surface before diving again. “If they stay down an hour looking for sea cucumbers, by the time they come up they are pretty saturated with nitrogen.”
Diving from the age of 12
Thirty-eight-year-old Radian, also from Lataling, has been paralysed twice; he can still walk, but he shuffles and needs walking sticks to get around. He still has pains in his legs and can’t deep-sea dive anymore, but he still goes out snorkelling six days a week to catch octopus. He doesn’t go deeper than six metres. He earns about five US dollars a day.
“I started diving when I was 12 years old. I was first paralysed 11 years ago. I had been due to get married at that time, but the paralysis put paid to that. I had been diving for ten years. I recovered in a month thanks to traditional healing and could even play football again. I stopped diving and became a rice grower. I didn’t dive for ten years; then I started again and ten days later I was paralysed. I couldn’t get up from the bed for five months. It took a year, that time, before I could walk around.”
There are few work options for the fishermen in Simeulue; they either dive for sea cucumbers, lobster, or octopus; or turn to rice-growing. They earn more money diving for sea cucumbers or octopus than if they go out to catch fish.
Recovered and still diving
Jurlin, aged 30, was paralysed, recovered, and still dives for sea cucumbers. He goes out with five other fishermen six days a week.
He was paralysed in 2003 after diving for a year. He received treatment from his family and a traditional healer. “After a year I tried to walk with the help of sticks; I was like a child starting to learn to walk, standing up and falling down. It took me five months to be able to walk with the help of two sticks, then, two months later, I managed with one, then I was able to walk without any help.”
The divers’ priority is to find as many of the prized gajah or elephant cucumbers as they can. They can’t afford to worry about diving for too long, or coming up too fast. They set out in the early morning in a small wooden boat, and spend all day out in the heat, and sometimes the rain, earning as little as 20 US dollars a day. The middle men who dry and trade the sea cucumbers make much, much more.
After the catch is dried, it is sent to Medan, the bustling capital of North Sumatra province, then it’s exported, mainly to China and Singapore.
More than 90 % of the international trade is in dried sea cucumbers, but they are also marketed chilled, frozen, and canned.
One kilo of wet gajah sea cucumbers sells for about 54 US dollars. Once they are dried, the price rises to at least 120 US dollars per kilo. (In the United States, the price of dried sea cucumber is pegged at 180 to 250 US dollars per kilo.)
Between 20,000 and 40,000 tons of sea cucumbers are bought and sold in the Asia-Pacific region every year and the Asian market is estimated to be worth 60 million US dollars annually. Indonesia is the world’s biggest sea cucumber exporter, followed by the Philippines, then Papua New Guinea.
In Singapore, dried Japanese sea cucumbers sell for as much as 2,800 Singapore dollars (nearly 2,200 US dollars) per kilo.
Nearly 90 % of the sea cucumber trade takes place in the Asian Far East, mostly China, Hong Kong, and Singapore. The Chinese remain the biggest consumers, but sea cucumbers are also sold to Taiwan, Malaysia, South Korea, and Japan.
Sea cucumbers are also exported in appreciable quantities to parts of the US and northern Australia, and some go to Western European markets with sizeable Oriental populations.
Both the fresh and dried forms are used for cooking and, in Japan, sea cucumbers are also eaten raw.
Dried sea cucumber is also used in traditional Chinese medicine. It has a high protein, mineral, and vitamin content, is said to have aphrodisiac and anti-inflammatory properties. It’s used to treat tendonitis, arthritis, impotence, general weakness, debility of the aged, constipation, and too-frequent urination. It’s said to improve kidney and stomach function and nourish the blood and is thought to have some cancer-prevention properties.
There’s also an emerging market for the use of sea cucumbers in the pharmaceutical and cosmetic industries, and they are increasingly being used in food supplements. They are even put into toothpaste to combat gum disease.
Sea cucumbers are known as hai shen or sea ginseng in China, namako or sea rat in Japan, and bêche-de-mer in France. There are about 1,200 species, and more than 50 of them are commercially exploited.
As demand escalates, the supply is dwindling. Stocks of most of the high-value commercial species have been depleted.
The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) says sea cucumber stocks are under intense fishing pressure throughout the world; it has called for catch quotas and minimum size limits, no fishing during breeding seasons, and better monitoring of the status of stocks.
The Australian Centre for International Agricultural Research (ACIAR) has also highlighted the problem: “Stocks of high-value sea cucumber species have been over-exploited throughout the Asia-Pacific region. Their high value as a food and medicine in China and other parts of Asia, the ease of capture, the apparently insatiable demand for them and the lack of effective management indicate that this situation is unlikely to change any time soon.
“Better fisheries governance must be a priority; however, in many cases, the situation is beyond the point where improved management alone can restore populations.”
There are some countries, such as India and Panama, where sea cucumber fishing is illegal, but there is a thriving clandestine trade, and illegal exporting.
A recent study at Sydney University in Australia points to the environmental damage caused by overfishing sea cucumbers. Researchers discovered that the creatures play a vital role in reducing the harmful impact of ocean acidification on coral growth. They also provide nutrients for the coral.
In the early 1980s, the Simeulue fishermen could get sea cucumbers by diving just three metres underwater. In the 1990s, they started using compressors and now they have to dive at least 15 metres, and, for the prized gajah, they have to descend to the sea bed.
While in restaurants around the world customers are served sea cucumbers in their many and varied forms – fried, braised, boiled, poached, or raw – and the traders and restaurateurs reap the benefits, Aidil’s family suffers grief and hardship.
Other families in Simeulue are in a similar situation. Poverty is trapping hundreds of people within a system that exploits the weakest, and benefits a favoured few.
Sea cucumber crackers – that’s the idea Zulfikar Zaintisa and his wife Fitri Kartika have come up with to commercialise sea cucumbers in a way that doesn’t require divers to go too deep, and doesn’t involve middlemen.
The sea cucumbers are boiled, dried, put through a blender, and mixed with sago, egg, a little sugar and seasoning, and are then put into 100-gram packets.
It took Zulfikar a year to get his recipe right, but now the crackers are on sale in a local supermarket, and online, and the couple have National Agency for Drug and Food Control authorisation for their product.
The crackers are gaining in popularity and Zulfikar is now looking for an investor so he can expand and set up a small factory. “We could make fish or octopus crackers, too.”
Zulfikar, who lives in the Raja Guibang area of Simeulue, worries about the local fishermen. “I try to remind them about the dangers and tell them they shouldn’t dive too deep. The cucumbers I use are closer to the surface than the gajah. To get supplies for the crackers, the fishermen don’t need to dive too deep. And I pay them a decent price.”
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