Poaching headache in Japan for sea creature eaten in Hong Kong and mainland China

Japan exports of sea cucumbers totalled 22.9 billion yen (US$207 million) in 2017, with most of them shipped to Hong Kong and mainland China

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 19 August, 2018, 10:41am
UPDATED : Sunday, 19 August, 2018, 8:12pm

With the poaching of sea cucumbers in Japan showing no sign of abating as the delicacy sells well in China, the government is considering establishing a system to ensure proof of authorised harvest is presented when they are exported.

Sea cucumbers from Hokkaido, the northernmost main island of Japan, are particularly popular in the Chinese market, while poaching has been reported in other parts of the country including the prefectures of Aomori in the northeast and Hiroshima in the west.

According to Japan Finance Ministry’s trade statistics, the country’s exports of sea cucumbers totalled 22.9 billion yen (US$207 million) in 2017, with most of them shipped to Hong Kong and mainland China. Processed items were traded at around 27,000 yen per kilogram.

To deal with the poaching situation, the Fisheries Agency is considering obliging sea cucumber exporters to present to customs officials certificates of origin issued by fisheries cooperatives to prove where the marine animals were fished. The agency treats sea cucumbers as a crucial export item along with scallops and pearls.

Authorities are concerned that proceeds from the trading of the poached creatures serve as a funding source for organised crime syndicates.

Police arrested members of crime syndicates and others on suspicion of poaching some 450kg of sea cucumbers on the coast of Ishikari, Hokkaido, and about 400kg on the coast of Wakkanai in the prefecture, in May and June, respectively.

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A group of poachers typically includes a diver, an operator of an inflatable boat and someone who keeps watch onshore, according to the police.

A senior Hokkaido police official warned that the poaching cases handled by police in Japan are “just the tip of the iceberg”, referring to around 30 annual cases in recent years.

Amid a diminishing harvest in Hokkaido, poaching inflicts serious damage on the earnings of local fishermen as proceeds from sea cucumber fishing accounts for around 30 to 50 per cent of their income, according to an official from the fisheries cooperative in the town of Suttsu.

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In Hokkaido, the haul of sea cucumbers decreased to 2,143 tonnes in 2016 from 2,835 tonnes in 2007. Locals have installed surveillance cameras around the fishing grounds and intensified patrolling of the area to stop poachers.

“We need measures to prevent poaching from the standpoint of the conservation of resources as well,” said Masahito Hirota, a research group leader at the Japan Fisheries Research and Education Agency.

He pointed out that some areas have suspended the fishing of sea cucumbers due to the decline of their populations.