Illegal trade in Africa’s high-value marine products escalating

Only six of the 30 African countries with sea cucumber resources have reported total catch their export totals over the past decade, despite an escalating trend of underreporting and illegal trade of it and other high-value marine species in the region.

According to a report by TRAFFIC, an international non-governmental organization that campaigns against illegal trade in wild animals and plants, the current illegal trade in high-value marine products between Africa and Asia –  especially of species like seahorse, sea cucumber, and fish maw  is flourishing. That illegal trade is decimating the species’ populations and denying several coastal communities means to a livelihood, the report found.

TRAFFIC based the report on findings of a study compiled in September 2020 showing “population declines, inadequate regulation, stretched law enforcement, and local communities impacted by illegal and unsustainable catch and trade.”

“As the trade in fish maws, sea cucumbers, and seahorses from Africa to Asia increases in volume, we simultaneously see significant discrepancies in the reported imports and exports of products linked to these taxa,” TRAFFIC Project Support Officer  Simone Louw said. Louw also served as lead author of the reports.

The report said smuggling networks are taking advantage of existing legal shortcomings in some African countries to divert illegally harvested high-value marine products to international supply chains. Shark fins, abalone, sea cucumber, and fish maws are some of the most at-risk marine species in the illegal trade due to being “highly-prized luxury seafood products consumed as symbols of status of wealth," the report found.

The report’s findings are consistent with previous observations with from the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), indicating in 12 of 30 countries in Africa and the Indian Ocean region the sea cucumber resource “appears to be overexploited or fully exploited.”

The region, which FAO estimates to be producing at least one-third of the world’s dried sea cucumber products, has also attempted various measures to address the overexploitation of the marine species, such as the imposition of total bans that “seem to be insufficient for a sustainable use of the resources.”

The international trade in high-value marine products, the FAO said, is characterized by “by exports from the producer countries, imports in ‘intermediates’ such as Yemen and Dubai, and final markets, where the key role of China/Hong Kong/Southeast Asia is most apparent.”

The FAO estimated sea cucumber species H. scabra, found in various marine regions off Africa's coast, fetches up to USD 369 (EUR 305) per kilogram, making it one of the continent’s highest-value marine products.

Kenya, Tanzania, Madagascar, and South Africa are some of the African countries where the underreported and illegal marine products trade or harvest is more pronounced, according to the report.

In Tanzania, a country formed after the 1964 union of Tanganyika (mainland) and the island of Zanzibar, a powerful smuggling cartel has taken advantage of legislative inconsistencies between the two territories to overexploit the sea cucumber. In mainland Tanzania, trade in sea cucumber is banned, but in Zanzibar it is legal to trade in the marine species, creating a loophole for the cartels to smuggle out sea cucumber and other high-value seafood, the report said.

“High demand, especially from East Asia, has resulted in an expanding marine product ‘gold rush,’ with more than 80 percent of African coastal states now exporting fish maw to Hong Kong Special Administrative Region alone,” the report said.

In an effort to reverse this flourishing illegal trade in prized marine species, two sea cucumber species that mostly occur in the Western Indian Ocean – Holothuria fuscogilva and H. nobulis – have been listed under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES).

The commercially exploited aquatic species were listed on CITES1 Appendix II in 2019, placing an obligation on customs officials across Eastern and Southern Africa “to identify these species from other non-listed species and grant export permits to adequately regulate international trade.”

The report calls for urgent and immediate action in the short term to reverse the trend including increased regulation and closer scrutiny of trade through efforts like creating specific HS codes and investigating “discrepancies between African and Asian countries/territories.”

Additionally, African governments, it said, should urgently probe the findings in the report “as it indicates significant levels of unsustainable and illegal harvest and trade, which is having a detrimental impact on target marine populations, and the local fishing communities that rely on them.”  

Photo courtesy of Blue Economy Seychelles


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