Sea cucumbers which can fetch up to $500 a kilogram dried are so in demand by restaurants across Asia that some species face extinction.
New research published by The Royal Society today says over-exploitation has reduced wild populations of the most expensive species by more than 60%.
Lead author Dr Steven Purcell from Southern Cross University says certain sea cucumbers in Australia are at risk.
“Corals are not the only thing under grave threat on Australia’s Great Barrier Reef,” he says.
“Sea cucumbers have been severely over-exploited in fisheries in the Pacific, southeast Asia and the Indian Ocean.”
He says sea cucumbers for sale in Sydney were probably all caught legally and under license in the Great Barrier Reef, Northern Territory, Torres Strait or the Coral Sea.
Poachers, attracted by the high prices for wild stock sea cucumbers, operate in Australian waters. Authorities have intercepted cargoes worth hundreds of thousands of dollars.
Sea cucumbers, also known as bech de mer, are used in Chinese food and are said to have aphrodisiac qualities.
Dr Purcell says 16 sea cucumber species are threatened with extinction on the IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature) Red List.
“A study published last year showed evidence that high-value sea cucumber species have been serially exploited by commercial fishing on the Great Barrier Reef, attributed in part to unresponsive management and little baseline data on their population sizes.”
Nine of the sixteen species now classified on the IUCN Red List as Vulnerable or Endangered are found on the Great Barrier Reef.
“Most of those are currently, or have recently been, exploited,” he says.
“While I cannot say that the populations on the Great Barrier Reef are at immediate risk of extinction, the species are certainly at grave risk on a broader geographic scale.”
He says there should be greater investment into independent research to understand population numbers and effects of fishing on Australian reefs .
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