SAN DIEGO (CN) – Criminal charges filed against a father-son duo accused of illegally importing sea cucumbers from Mexico for huge profit by selling the seafood delicacy for $17.5 million in Asia have highlighted the tension between keeping fishing sustainable and ensuring fishermen can maintain their livelihood off the ocean. Courthouse News took a deep dive into the current state of Mexican fisheries and found while some depleted fisheries have been restored in recent years, the stakes have been raised for those who make their living selling the prized delicacies.
Enforcement Nets Results
Last week David Mayorquin and Ramon Torres Mayorquin were arraigned in San Diego’s federal court on charges related to the illegal trafficking of sea cucumbers through San Diego’s port of entry. The two owned and operated Arizona-based seafood company Blessings Inc. and had a legal permit to import the sea creatures – which are related to sea urchins and starfish.
But the Mayorquins skirted international rules on importing sea cucumbers, which allow them to be fished only in season. The animals must also be a certain size and caught in limited quantities to maintain the population in Mexican fisheries like the one in Yucatan where the sea cucumbers purchased by the family were allegedly poached from.
Since the U.S. Attorney’s Office began investigating illegal quantities of sea cucumbers coming through San Diego’s port of entry, the border city has seen a stark drop in imports of the sea creature: over 90 percent in the past three years, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Office of Science and Technology.
In 2013, more than 2.4 million pounds of sea cucumbers worth over $27 million crossed San Diego’s border from Mexico. By 2016, only 155,000 pounds of imported sea cucumbers worth $1.1 million was declared at San Diego’s port of entry, according to NOAA.
While enforcement efforts on both sides of the border appear to be deterring illegal poaching and overfishing of protected species such as sea cucumbers, the stakes are higher for those who stand to make millions off delicacies prized in Asian markets.
Impact on Mexican Fisheries
Octavio Aburto, a marine ecologist with UC San Diego’s Scripps Institution of Oceanography, told Courthouse News the solution to balancing the need to maintain sustainable fisheries with the needs of the fishermen whose livelihoods depend on seafood isn’t a new concept at all, but one some fishing communities have employed for over 70 years: ownership rights to certain fishing areas.
Aburto said the most successful fisheries in Mexico are also the most sustainable, because some fishing communities have formed cooperatives which enforce fishing laws themselves rather than relying on the government to prevent overfishing of commercial seafood.
“The ones that best protect natural resources are the ones who live there and understand overfishing will kill their community,” Aburto said.
“Communities that really participate in enforcement activities, whether promoted by the government or not, are the best at preserving their resources.”
In particular, Aburto said, fishing cooperatives in Baja California in an area known as Pacifico Norte have been following sustainable-fishing methods for lobster and abalone since before it was law – something Aburto called “logical.”
The cooperatives purchased their own surveillance equipment – including boats and guns – to patrol the area where the community fishes to ensure outside poachers don’t try to deplete the income source which sustains their communities.
The Mexican government has tried to implement some of the fishing rights which has made Baja fishing cooperatives so successful, but has not quite worked out a successful way to help other Mexican fishing communities take on enforcement actions like the cooperatives have, Aburto said.
Management units of other fisheries throughout Mexico were reviewed every year, Aburto said, meaning those with rights to fisheries did not invest much in them since their ownership rights could be taken away the following year.
“In some ways it’s impossible to replicate the successful models of the Pacifico Norte, which have purview over their fisheries for 20 years,” Aburto said.
A study by the Environmental Defense Fund in Mexico echoed Aburto’s position on the success of creating local purviews over certain fisheries, finding “the greatest gains come from establishing fishing rights, which end the desperate race to overfish by asking fishing communities to adhere to strict, science-based catch limits in exchange for a secure right to a share of the catch.”
By the group’s account, about 60 percent of Mexico’s fisheries today are considered “healthy.” But the number of sustainable fisheries could jump to 93 percent if Mexico ramps up efforts to fight illegal fishing and adopt sustainable management, according to the group. If the government does not curb illegal fishing, the number of sustainable fisheries would decrease by at least 10 percent in 20 years.
Mexico can increase the amount of fish in the water by 70 percent – and harvests by 24 percent – if it establishes secure fishing rights and combats illegal fishing, increasing profits by up to $200 million with sustainable fishing, the group found.
Fishermen Want Laws Enforced
Minerva Perez, the first commercial producer of giant geoduck clams in Mexico, told Courthouse News she had to fight to get into a market that favored products from Canada and the United States. Once her fishery became established in 2002, she said she eventually was able to get a “fair price” for her seafood product prized in China.
But Perez said when poachers started selling inadequate geoduck clams from Mexico, it caused her prices to drop, forcing “real fishermen” like her to double their catch just to make ends meet.
She points to Mexico’s crackdown on turtle poachers more than 30 years ago as proof the government can be successful at curbing illegal fishing when the laws are applied and illegal fishermen face consequences.
“We have enough laws. We don’t need to create any more rules, they just need to make it happen and make someone comply with the laws,” Perez said.
“All the fishermen who follow the rules believe if someone steals fish, it’s a robbery and needs to be treated like a robbery. But people only get jail time for endangered species like turtles. Why do you need to wait until a species is endangered to make a rule like that? To me it makes no sense.”
Perez said if a fisherman gets caught without a permit or otherwise not following the laws, their boat will get taken away and the seafood product might be confiscated. But “nothing else will happen,” she said, and they will not face a fine or jail time.
The geoduck producer disputed that it’s cost-prohibitive to follow the laws, get the proper permitting and use the right equipment. She said the real investment is in people and equipment but that poachers have “nothing to lose” and jump from fishery to fishery, depleting the supply. Perez suggested Mexico’s stagnant economy and lack of jobs has created the mentality among poachers that “whoever fishes first is the one who will make the money,” and they aren’t considering whether they will be able to fish tomorrow.
She said even successful fisheries like those in Pacifico Norte still deal with illegal fishing and a depletion of fish.
But though Perez has seen high-price products like lobster, abalone and tuna dwindle to unfishable levels, she said she still has hope more people will understand why “it is important to take care of the ocean today to continue fishing tomorrow.”