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1,000 sea cucumbers rescued, returned to sea

Thirteen men were caught redhanded last week removing over 1,000 sea cucumbers from waters in the Onesosopo and Laulii area.


Last Wednesday, Dec. 4, Governor Lolo Moliga signed a moratorium banning the removal of sea cucumbers in American Samoa and its Exclusive Economic Zone for a period of six months.


That same day, enforcement officers from the Department of Marine and Wildlife Resources (DMWR) went out patrolling and came upon several groups of fishermen hauling buckets and coolers of sea cucumbers in Onesosopo and Laulii.


DMWR director Dr. Ruth Matagi-Tofiga said the men were from the west side of the island and when confronted, they weren’t too happy. She said the pulenuu (village mayor) was notified and informed about the situation, and he was urged to keep an eye out for outsiders - and villagers - removing sea cucumbers from the ocean.


Matagi-Tofiga said she was appalled to discover that the men had removed over 1,000 sea cucumbers and packed them into buckets and coolers, enough to completely fill the bed of two pick-up trucks.


When asked if the culprits were fined and penalized, per the moratorium, Matagi-Tofiga said the men were warned and informed about the law, because the Governor’s Executive Order had just been signed earlier that day and they weren’t sure if the men were aware of the ban.


She said their goal is to educate people on the importance of sea cucumbers to our local reefs and the devastating effects their absence will cause.


According to the DMWR director, the confiscated sea cucumbers were distributed back into the ocean, from Fagaalu to Fatu-ma-Futi and Gataivai, even Utulei where there has been a noticeable shortage of sea cucumbers.


Governor Lolo has notified the Secretary of Samoan Affairs, Satele Galu Satele Sr. to activate the traditional network in villages, meaning villagers and mayors should question any outsiders fishing in their waters.


Meanwhile, DMWR is conducting enforcement around the clock, and Police Commissioner William Haleck has been asked for his assistance, insofar as alerting the cops about the moratorium and informing them to be on the lookout for violators.


In the Fagaloa area, Matagi-Tofiga said there are problems with people removing sea cucumbers during nighttime hours. “Now that the moratorium has been signed and DMWR is out patrolling, fishermen are removing sea cucumbers at night, when nobody is looking,” she said, adding that six buckets full of sea cucumbers were confiscated after dark in the Gataivai area last week.


In that case, the fishermen were told to return the sea cucumbers back to the ocean, and they did so.


“But we have a feeling that these fishermen return to the sites and remove the sea cucumbers after we leave,” Matagi-Tofiga said.


She explained that the culprits in these incidents have been warned and she promises that repeat offenders will be penalized and fined according to the law.


“These people are being enticed by money and that’s why they do it, even though they know it’s wrong,” she said. “What’s $10 a bucket when the end result will come at a bigger cost?” Matagi-Tofiga asked.


She said even Port Administration has been notified to keep an eye out for shipments going out of the territory, to make sure that no sea cucumbers are being shipped off island.


Sea cucumbers are big business in Asian markets where the market price can reach $200 per kilo, due to its supposed medicinal properties and reputation as an aphrodisiac.


Sea cucumbers play a very important role in regulating the health of our coral reef ecosystem. They could be described as important “vacuum cleaners” that ensure our ocean waters and sandy sediments are stripped of excess nutrients.


DMWR fisheries biologist Alice Lawrence said, “If all the sea cucumbers disappeared from our reefs, our reefs would quickly become unhealthy and unsafe places to swim and fish. Excess nutrients on the reef cause an increase in bacteria and algae which can grow over live coral, and eventually impact the reef enough that the fish populations also disappear.”


Anyone with information on the illegal removal of sea cucumbers is urged to contact DMWR at 633-4456.