The Harvesting of Sea Cucumbers in the Galapagos Islands

Sea cucumbers in the Galapagos are being fished out illegally in spite of a four-year ban that is unsuccessfully enforced by the Ecuadorian government. Most sea cucumbers are dried and exported to Taiwan and Hong Kong. The waters off of mainland Ecuador have already been stripped of commercially valuable sea cucumbers. The controversy in the Galapagos involves the inability to sustain sea cucumber harvesting, and that the removal of millions of sea cucumbers will have detrimental effects on the food chain in the waters of the Galapagos. (Sullivan, 1999) Aside from the ecological damage, it is feared that these fishermen will go after other, rarer species when the sea cucumbers are depleted. (Stutz, 1995) It has been proposed to raise sea cucumber in captivity, but difficulties exist, such as locating the sexually mature sea cucumbers, the timing of mating the animals, providing the necessary food for the larvae, and then releasing the sea cucumbers at the right time. (Cohn, 1996)
The sea cucumber, or Cucumaria frondosa, make up the class Holothuroidae, of the phylum Echinodermata. The sea cucumber is related to the starfish, and can be described as big slug-like blobs. Sea cucumbers have a rubbery-like, warty body and their length can range from 0.8 inches to 6.5 feet. They have tube-like feet that project from underneath them and give them the sluggish caterpillar-like contractions as they move. Sea cucumbers breathe through branched respiratory tubes, or trees that go from the cloaca to the body cavity. The cloaca contract, forcing water into the respiratory. The water is emptied into the body cavity and mixes with body fluids and supplies the sea cucumber with oxygen. (Microsoft Encarta Encyclopedia 2000)
Sea cucumbers have a very important role in nature and maintaining the ecological balance in the sea. They prey on a variety of small organisms, which aids in controlling the population of these organisms. Decaying matter on the seafloor is food for the sea cucumber. The sea cucumber ingests seafloor sediments by swallowing large quantities, passing it through the intestine, and ejects the remainder. A large population of sea cucumbers within an area can process large quantities of sediments, and substantially change the composition of the sediments. (Encyclopædia Britannica Online) The sea cucumber in the sea can be compared to the earthworm on land, as they turnover bottom sediments that helps to free nutrients. The sea cucumbers\' sperm, eggs, and larvae are an important source of food for organisms ranging from single-celled animals to fish. Sea cucumbers can account for 90% of the biomass.
The high demand for the sea cucumber can be attributed to it being a gourmet delicacy in Asia, and is considered to be an aphrodisiac as well as having medicinal properties such as being a treatment for high blood pressure. (Sitwell, 1993) The sea cucumbers\' flesh is made up of 50 - 60% proteins, which makes for source of high-quality food. When the waters of Micronesia were exhaustively harvested for the sea cucumber, fishermen set their sights first to Ecuador\'s Pacific coast in 1988, and then to the Galapagos in early 1992. (Cohn, 1996)
The Galapagos is a cluster of volcanic islands that belongs to the province of Ecuador. The islands are located 600 miles from the coast of South America. The islands were named "Galapagos" after one of its inhabitants, the giant tortoise or galapagos. The bishop of Panama, Tomás de Berlanga, happened upon the Galapagos Islands by accident in 1535 during his voyage to Peru when his ship had drifted of its course. Spanish voyagers of the 16th century used the islands as a place to stop, as did pirates and hunters. Ecuador took possession of Galapagos in 1832, after the area had set without colonization for almost 300 years. The English naturalist Charles Darwin\'s visit to the islands in 1835 resulted in international fame for the area. Darwin\'s theories on natural selection can be attributed to his visit to Galapagos. The native finches on the islands are commonly referred to as Darwin\'s finches. (Encyclopædia Britannica Online)
The ecosystem of the Galapagos Islands is very unique and attracted the imaginations of biologists and tourists for many years. The variety of animal and plant life that exists here are all resident species,