SAPPORO - With the poaching of Japanese sea cucumbers showing no sign of abating amid strong sales of the delicacy in China, the government is considering establishing a system to ensure that proof of authorized harvest is presented at the time of export.
Sea cucumbers from Hokkaido are particularly popular in China, though poaching has been reported in other parts of Japan, including Aomori and Hiroshima prefectures.
According to Finance Ministry trade statistics, exports of sea cucumbers came to ¥22.9 billion ($207 million) in 2017, with most shipped to Hong Kong and mainland China. Processed items were traded at around ¥27,000 per kilogram.
To stamp out the poaching trend, the Fisheries Agency is considering requiring exporters to show customs officials certificates of origin issued by fisheries cooperatives to prove exactly where their sea cucumbers were procured.
The agency treats the cucumbers as a crucial export item along with scallops and pearls.
Authorities are concerned proceeds from the trading end up funding organized crime syndicates.
Police have arrested several members of crime syndicates and other suspects on suspicion of poaching some 450 kg of sea cucumbers off the coast of Ishikari, and about 400 kg off Wakkanai, both in Hokkaido, in May and June, respectively.
A group of poachers typically includes a diver, a person who operates an inflatable boat and someone who keeps watch from ashore, authorities say.
A senior Hokkaido police official warned that the poaching cases handled in Japan are “just the tip of the iceberg,” noting that there have been around 30 cases annually in recent years.
Amid the diminishing harvest in Hokkaido, poaching has been seriously eating into the earnings of local fishermen because sea cucumbers account for around 30 to 50 percent of their income, according to an official from the fisheries cooperative in the town of Suttsu.
In Hokkaido, the haul of sea cucumbers fell to 2,143 tons in 2016 from 2,835 tons in 2007. Local residents have installed surveillance cameras around the fishing grounds and intensified patrols of the area to stop the poachers.
“We need measures to prevent poaching from the standpoint of the conservation of resources as well,” said Masahito Hirota, a research group leader at the Japan Fisheries Research and Education Agency.
He pointed out that some areas have suspended the fishing of sea cucumbers due to the decline of their populations.