The opening of a Lower Keys seafood processing facility has spurred state fishery managers to move toward limiting harvests of the Florida sea cucumber.
"In the first half of 2013, the landings [of sea cucumbers] have more than tripled the previous annual average with over 49,000 sea cucumbers landed," Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission biologist Melissa Recks said at the FWC's Nov. 21 meeting in Weston.
The FWC board directed agency staff to prepare a draft regulation that sets a new boat limit of 200 sea cucumbers per day, to be considered for possible adoption at the commission's February meeting.
Florida law limits the harvest of sea cucumbers to people who hold marine-life licenses for collecting live animals, primarily for the aquarium trade. But there is no limit on how many sea cucumbers a licensed collector can take. Licensed recreational fishers can take five per day, but cannot legally sell them.
With a limited aquarist market for sea cucumbers -- estimated in recent years at just $14,000 annually statewide, or about $1 per cucumber, wholesale -- there was little concern about depleting the species population.
But there is a big Asian market for sea cucumbers as a high-protein delicacy, and in alternative-medicine treatments for arthritis, wound healing and more.
"At least one exporter has established a processing facility in the Keys and is recruiting harvesters to supply his export business," says an FWC staff report.
Florida Sea Cucumber Corp., registered in June 2012 as a Florida corporation but based in New York City, operates a processing facility on Ramrod Key.
"We are a supplier of organic, farm-raised and wild-caught Florida sea cucumbers," the firm says on its website. "Our products are caught in a sustainable manner and we operate under all required licenses needed to catch sea cucumbers.
"In addition, we breed sea cucumbers in our aquaculture pens to replenish [the] local population of the species," the site says. "Our goal is to repopulate the area with more than we catch."
The FWC report describes Florida sea cucumbers "sedentary marine invertebrates that inhabit shallow-water habitats in the Florida Keys, residing in seagrass beds, lagoons and nearshore reefs. They are vulnerable to overfishing because their visibility and sedentary nature make them easy to locate and collect."
Sea cucumbers can live up to 15 years, but need large populations to successfully spawn. They prowl the ocean bottom for organic debris and provide benefits for the overall marine ecosystem.
Around the world, few nations set limits on harvesting the lowly sea cucumber. That resulted in "a series of boom-and-bust fisheries," Recks told the FWC. Sea cucumbers were nearly wiped out in some areas and heavily overfished in others. Many tropical nations have since adopted a total ban on harvesting the species.
"There have also been severe [sea cucumber] population crashes recorded in high-profile conservation sites such as the Great Barrier Reef and Galapagos Islands National Park due to overfishing, with no signs of recovery at these sites," Recks said.
The Florida Marine Life Association, representing many of the state's 160 licensed commercial collectors, recommended the 200-per-day boat limit.
"Everybody involved with marine life is involved with the aquarium trade, not exporting food fish to another country," group President Jeff Turner told the FWC. "We're trying to identify how this came about."
A representative of the Sierra Club, Drew Martin, also endorsed the limit. "The marine environment is so important, and sea cucumbers are important to the marine environment," he said.