Two men have been killed in separate crocodile attacks in the Solomon Islands while diving for sea cucumbers at night.
- A sea cucumber catch can earn Pacific divers hundreds of dollars
- The lifting of a sea cucumber ban has triggered a harvest craze
- Crocodile populations are flourishing in the Solomon Islands
The deaths last week of a 36-year-old man and another man in their 20s came less than a month after the country lifted a ban on harvesting the sea animal, also called beche-de-mer, to boost the economy after COVID-19.
The Royal Solomon Islands Police Force, Assistant Commissioner Joseph Maneluga, said he was concerned about the attacks, which happened with just one day between each other.
“I think people are going crazy because of the reopening of beche-de-mer,” he said.
“And the population of crocodiles is really rising, and that’s the threat we have.”
Police received assistance from divers of explosive gear, usually tasked with disposing of old World War II shells, to recover the bodies from the crocodile-infected waters.
“It’s quite risky because there are still crocodiles around these places, and therefore it is not safe for our divers to go back to the same place to search for these people,” Assistant Commissioner Maneluga said.
Despite the threat of crocodile attacks, diver and marine biologist Stephen Attallifo Mosese said locals were not afraid to get in the water to harvest sea cucumbers.
“I was amazed because the Gulf of Suava in Malaita is a hotspot for crocodiles, and ever since the reopening you can see people diving out. [at] the mangroves at night and you know this is [the] time crocodiles are the most active, “Mr Mosese said.
Asian market burns sea cucumber craze
Sea cucumbers are soft and squishy and, like their namesake, have a tube-like body.
They are nocturnal and spend their lives in the dark depths of the ocean floor, feeding on debris in the sediment.
They play a vital role in the ocean ecosystem by acting as an underwater vacuum cleaner and eating up waste, which helps balance ocean acidification.
China and the Southeast Asian countries consider them a culinary delicacy, and dried cucumbers are sometimes used in traditional medicine.
One kilo can fetch up to $ 170 in the Solomon Islands.
Their false form has given them a suggestive nickname and they are often confused with an aphrodisiac.
The demand for Pacific cucumbers is huge and depending on the species, the export of this delicacy can earn local divers for big dollars.
“Almost all business houses in the Solomon Islands, especially the Chinese, are interested in paying for beche-de-mer, and the shops put up large posters saying ‘We buy sea cucumber’.”
There are also reports that Asian buyers are supplying local fishermen with fuel, torches and batteries, causing more to dive after the creatures.
The Pacific cucumber trade has undergone cycles of boom as retailers utilize areas for storage.
Stacy Jupiter, Melanesia’s regional director of the Wildlife Conservation Society, said the harvest led to a ban on harvesting sea cucumbers in the Solomon Islands in 2019.
“They basically utilize almost all the sea cucumbers that can be harvested in a region until the populations actually collapse,” she said.
“In some places over time, people can recover, but in some places they do not.”
Lifting the ban leads to autumn rush
The Solomon Islands government lifted the cucumber ban on September 1, citing economic difficulties the country is facing due to the pandemic.
The ban will be put in place again in September next year.
Although the government has size limits to protect cucumber stands, lack of resources means that the policy is a bit enforced.
Some local fishermen have also complained that they have been underpaid for their catch.
Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare said people from neighboring Papua New Guinea, who are fighting a COVID-19 outbreak, had crossed the border to harvest beche-de-mer, putting Solomon Islanders at risk of infection.
“More people from Bougainville [in PNG] have crossed the border to harvest bech-de-mer on our side of the border and they have interacted with more people, “he said.
Crocodile slaughter considered
While divers are celebrating the removal of the sea cucumber ban, yet another wildlife ban has made their jobs more dangerous.
Thirty years since then, the Solomon Islands decided to ban the export of crocodiles, which led to a population boom throughout the country.
To help protect divers and others living near rivers, some people are calling for a crocodile release to reduce the number.
But Dr. Jupiter said killing crocodiles was not the answer.
She said that if the cucumber and crocodile stocks were well managed, people could safely earn a living without risking their lives.
“It’s about trying to get these sustainable management practices in place so people have more money, that the ecological system is still working, and that people are not putting themselves at risk of being attacked or eaten by crocodiles,” said Dr. Jupiter.
She has backed calls from authorities urging people to take precautions while diving.
It includes knowing the dive site, diving during the day with a group of people, having someone to take care of dangers and avoiding mangroves, swamps and seagrass where crocodiles like to hang out.
“These are the ways to raise awareness and stop people from just taking every single one because they look at them as money sitting on the reef,” she said.