A “gold rush” is underway in Africa’s coastal waters to feed surging demand from East Asia for dried fish bladders, or fish maw, which is described as the cocaine of the sea.
More than 80% of African coastal states are now exporting fish maw to the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region alone, according to Traffic, the wildlife-trade-monitoring network.
Its new series of reports focuses on the trade in high-value marine products from Africa to Asia, particularly for sea cucumbers, fish maws and seahorses.
An average fish, weighing more than 50kg can fetch up to $10 a kilogram, but the swim bladder has a much higher unit value, earning about $190 a kilogram, Traffic says.
The rampant, profitable and often illicit trade in sea cucumbers, fish maws and seahorses threatens their long-term survival and the livelihoods of coastal communities dependent on them, depriving countries of trade revenue.
“As the trade … from Africa to Asia increases in volume, we simultaneously see significant discrepancies in the reported imports and exports of products linked to these taxa,” indicating significant levels of unsustainable and illegal harvest and trade, says Simone Louw, project support officer at Traffic.
Together with shark fins and abalone, sea cucumbers and fish maws are part of the big four delicacies in East Asia. These highly prized, luxury seafood products are consumed as symbols of status or wealth. High demand in Asia and high levels of overfishing in Africa have caused a sharp decline in populations — especially for sea cucumbers, Louw says.
There’s been a 60% to 70% decline in sea cucumber populations on the East African coastline from overfishing in Madagascar, Tanzania, Kenya and the Seychelles.
“This is having devastating impacts on those fisheries, many which have closed or been forced into moratoria, and the fishing communities that rely on the sea cucumber supply chain,” says Louw.
In Madagascar, fishers are already being forced to move from village to village as sites lose their viability. The decline in populations is affecting many women and children involved in the drying and processing of sea cucumbers before these are exported to Asia.
The international market price for dried sea cucumbers is believed to have risen in recent years, contributing to increased fishing pressure in many poorly managed fisheries across Africa, Traffic says. One species occurring in Africa, Holothuria scabra, is among the continent’s highest-value marine products, with an average retail price of $369 a kilogram.
The number of African countries involved in the trade has climbed from 18 countries in 2012 to 33 exporting sea cucumber products by the end of 2019. Yet, only six reported trade in the last 10 years.
Traffic says under-reported and illegal trade or harvest is especially prevalent in Madagascar, Kenya, Tanzania, and South Africa. In Tanzania, smuggling networks exploit inconsistencies in legislation between the mainland, where trade is banned, and offshore Zanzibar, where it is not, by moving illegally harvested sea cucumbers for transit into international supply chains.
In Lake Victoria, Nile perch is being harvested at unsustainable levels because of the demand for its high-value meat and fish maws, threatening the social and economic benefits it provides to the lakeside communities of Uganda, Tanzania and Kenya. Exports are severely under-reported by all three countries, making it very difficult to identify, monitor and regulate the trade.
In Kenya, zero exports of Nile Perch have been reported over the past 10 years, despite it being one of the largest source countries in Africa.
“All we are seeing are these high volumes of fish maws leaving Africa and more African countries getting involved in the trade each year, with very little information about the source,” says Louw. “This can be highly detrimental to the ecosystem.”
Seahorses, too, are being caught and traded in high volumes. “This is happening with little to no monitoring of the international trade or the associated impact on local populations,” Traffic says.