Nina Devries for Al Jazeera America

Sea cucumbers a fragile, fading source of income for Sierra Leone’s divers

Prized in Asia as a luxury food, marine creature numbers could be dwindling

BANANA ISLANDS, Sierra Leone — The hours of darkness tend to be the best time to catch sea cucumbers, capitalizing on the sausage-shaped sea floor dwellers’ nocturnal feeding cycle.

And so it is that at 9 p.m. Emmanuel Pratt dons his diving gear, draw a last puff from his cigarette and walks to the shoreline where a canoe awaits.

His shift out at sea can sometimes last until dawn, with Pratt using his bare hands to catch sea cucumbers — creatures that belong to the same marine group as sea urchins and starfish.

The 26 year old has been living off the sea in this way for eight years. For Pratt and other residents of Dublin, a coastal village on the Banana Islands that lie of the coast of Sierra Leone, sea cucumber diving can be a lucrative trade.

Harvested largely for an Asian market that values the creatures as a luxury food item and ingredient in traditional medicines, divers can see returns of up to $100 on a good night's catch.

Such sums can go a long way in a country where, according to data from the United Nations Development Program, people live on less than $2 a day on average.

Diver Emmanuel Pratt holds up a sea cucumber.
Nina Devries for Al Jazeera America

“I come from a poor family, that’s what caused me to dive,” said Pratt. “My father died 5 years ago, with this work I can feed my kids and help my mother.”

But it can be an arduous task. Once caught, sea cucumbers have to be gutted, cleaned, boiled, smoked and dried. It is a labor-intensive process and can take up to several days to complete.

And among the local diving community in Banana Islands there are concerns that the level of harvesting is unsustainable.

Pratt said that various Chinese investors he has worked for — exporters who supply sea cucumbers to Asia specifically in places like Hong Kong and China where they can fetch $120 per kilogram — encourage over-fishing and employ practices that undermine local harvesters.

He referred to one investor he knew as Mr. Cham, who brought divers from China with their own oxygen masks. Such equipment that is out of financial reach for most local teams unless provided by investors.

As a result of the oxygen masks, the foreign divers were able to bring to shore about 50 buckets full of sea cucumbers a night — some five times higher than the usual load harvested by most locals, Pratt said.

Richard Jones, chief of the community in Dublin, has similar concerns over the impact that foreign investors have on the fishing village.

Benefits such as a power generator that Jones said Cham had promised to give the community have been slow in materializing. The village still has no electricity.

“I am discouraged about it, if there was power here I’d have light in my house, so it’s a bit of a discouragement to me,” said Jones.

He added that if people want to come and use up resources the entire community should be compensated.

Cham, however, says he has brought employment and regular income to the community.

Speaking from Tombo, a town on the mainland where he runs a fishing business, he told Al Jazeera that during the rainy season when diving stopped, he gave his employees about $150 per month to keep them afloat and additional money for medicine if they got sick.

“People can get plenty of money, some bought houses, got machines. I advise them to keep 30 percent in savings, but they didn’t listen,” said Cham, who declined to give Al Jazeera his full name.

Cham refused to reveal how much money he personally made from the trade in sea cucumbers. But estimates from a report prepared for the Sierra Leonean Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) suggest that in the peak seasons around 2009, an investor could collect around 4,850 pounds of sea cucumbers during a very good night, an amount that equates to $70,714.

But another concern nags away at the local community in Banana Islands; the impact of over-harvesting on sea cucumber populations.

Even though licenses are officially no longer being issued to fish for the species, foreign investors are still hiring local divers and middlemen to bring them the goods to export to Asia. In 2012, the market in Sierra Leonean sea cucumbers was estimated at $1.2 million, of which around 95 percent came from the Banana Islands.

Cham said he noticed an apparent drop in sea cucumber numbers in 2011 and has since stopped work in the sea cucumber industry.

Research on sea cucumber populations is patchy, but studies suggest that overfishing is causing depletion worldwide including in Sierra Leone.

Percival Showers is a professor of marine biology and oceanography at Fourah Bay College in Freetown. He produced the report for the EPA that looked at the apparent decline in population and potential links to overfishing and pollution.

A drop in numbers could have an impact on other sea life.

Showers explained that sea cucumbers are an important part of the eco system, helping breakdown bacteria and recycling nutrients.

“They call them the cleaners of the sea,” Showers said

Showers hopes that the Sierra Leonean government will pay more attention to sea cucumber numbers going forward, by regulating and better monitoring the species.

“To manage the fishery, you need data, you need information, about how much is being given, taken, the prices, who are people involved, what is cost benefit. It can take time, up to a year of very good catch data,” said Showers.

He is calling for greater regulations during closed seasons — the four to five months during which harvesting does not take place. Tighter rule could help sea cucumber numbers replenish before divers take to the water again.

Better management of the harvesting of sea cucumbers “is important so that local people can get benefits from their own resources without relying on foreign investors,” Showers added.

Alieu Jalloh, acting assistant deputy director for policy and research at the EPA, said the agency is planning to meet with the Ministry of Fisheries to discuss how best to move on Showers’ recommendations.

But additional measures to protect the creatures from overpopulation could take time to implement.

In the meantime Pratt says he will continue his work but wants to see more progress for his community. 

He says it is sometime hard to trust the foreign investors and he does worry that if insufficient local input is accepted about how to manage resources, sea cucumbers could vanish forever.

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