This is a story about sex, supply and demand, global trade, corruption, government regulation and one of the ugliest sea creatures in Florida.
Among the marine animals that live in the Florida Keys is the sea cucumber. It is animal, not vegetable -- a long and lumpy invertebrate that looks like a cross between a diseased zucchini and an overinflated eclair.
For decades, divers who strapped on scuba gear to collect saltwater fish for aquariums have also scooped up the occasional sea cucumber. In 2012, they collected about 14,000 of them in the Keys, according to Melissa Recks of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. Nobody got rich off of them -- they were going for about $1 each.
Then, last year, Florida's sea cucumber catch more than tripled, hitting 54,000, Recks said.
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The reason for that astonishing jump lies in the Asian market, where they are eaten, not displayed in aquariums. In China in particular, the sea cucumber is used to treat joint pain -- and, more importantly, as an aphrodisiac.
As a result, demand is heavy there for sea cucumbers, also known as "trepang"
and "bêche-de-mer" and "the vacuum cleaners of the sea." The demand is so heavy that worldwide 20 percent of sea cucumber fisheries have been fully depleted.
That's bad news. Despite their alleged ability to boost human sexual performance, sea cucumbers suffer from a major disadvantage in their own reproduction because they are "broadcast spawners," Recks said.
That means they eject their sperm and eggs out into the water in the expectation that enough other sea cucumbers are close by doing the same thing so that they will mix. If there aren't, no spawning occurs. If too many sea cucumbers are harvested, they may never bounce back.
So many sea cucumbers were harvested in Costa Rica, Ecuador, India and eight other countries that the population collapsed, prompting those countries to ban further harvesting, Recks said. Even in areas that are supposed to be protected, such as the Great Barrier Reef and Galapagos Islands National Park, so many sea cucumbers were snatched up that their population crashed.
Except for requiring a license to collect live sea creatures, Florida does not regulate sea cucumber collectors. Fearing disaster will occur in the Keys as it has elsewhere, the group that represents people collecting sea creatures there, the Florida Marine Life Association, asked state wildlife officials to create new regulations to protect sea cucumbers -- a rare move.
Seeking harvesting limit
Because the association requested a limit of 200 sea cucumbers per person per trip, that's the limit Recks recommended to wildlife commissioners.
"We're taking the advice of the industry here because we don't have anything better," she said during a meeting in Tampa this month.
To Eric Lee, a limit that small would be a disaster: "I would definitely be out of business."
Lee spent nine years working in the oil and coal industries in China, leaving because the pollution got too bad. He now runs Florida's only sea cucumber processing plant on Ramrod Key.
Lee said he spent a year and a half getting the plant started, including obtaining permits from the state and federal governments, with an eye toward selling Florida sea cucumbers to the Asian market.
At first, all went well. In communist China, sea cucumber is often handed out in expensive gift boxes to family, friends or -- nudge nudge, wink wink -- to government officials who might be inclined to do favors. That was a major part of Lee's expected market.
Pursuing retail market
But then the Chinese government cracked down on government corruption "and now government officials are terrified to take gifts," Lee said.
Thus Lee is now concentrating on the retail market, he said. But to make it work he needs the wildlife commission to set a higher limit -- say 500 to 800 sea cucumbers per person per trip.
For the wildlife commission meeting, Lee brought along a bag of dried sea cucumbers and handed them around to the commissioners.
"I guess the question is whether the commissioners should view them or eat them," quipped commission chairman Richard Corbett, a Tampa mall developer.
The commissioners initially voted to limit the take to 200, but then reconsidered and said they would give their staff time to work out a compromise prior to their next meeting, which is in April in Tallahassee.
Until then, it's still open season on sea cucumbers in the Keys -- although it seems unlikely they will show up on any Florida seafood menus. One diner quoted by the Independent, a British newspaper, described their taste as "slightly lower than phlegm, the texture of which it closely resembles."