FWC recommends 200-a-day sea-cucumber limit, fisherman says that would put him out of business

kwadlow@keynoter.comApril 12, 2014 

Sea cucumbers are popular in Asia for use as food and for medicinal purposes.

KEYSINFONET

The fate of a Lower Keys commercial sea-cucumber business could be decided Wednesday, says the Florida Sea Cucumber corporate president.

That's when a decision on setting daily or trip limits for the bottom-dwelling invertebrates goes before the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission board, meeting near Tallahassee.

"This will pretty much decide which way it's going to go," said Eric Lee of Florida Sea Cucumber, a firm that wants to sell processed sea cucumbers to China as a food and nutritional supplement.

FWC staff says in a background report that it will hold to an earlier recommendation to create a daily trip limit of 200 sea cucumbers for people holding a commercial marine-life license with a species endorsement.

"The proposed rule would allow the established traditional fishery that supplies sea cucumbers alive to the aquarium trade to continue to operate under its current practices and could be carefully expanded later, if appropriate," says a summary by FWC biologists Melissa Recks and Mason Smith.

Lee said the 200 daily limit "would put us out of business" at the firm's Ramrod Key processing facility, now largely dormant.

Florida Sea Cucumber will ask the FWC to choose a secondary alternative offered by agency staff: A commercial trip limit of 500 sea cucumbers per day per vessel until the annual harvest reaches 150,000 sea cucumbers. After that annual harvest is reached, the limit would drop to 50 cucumbers per day for the rest of the year.

"Given the options of being out of business or being able to stay in business and get our money back, we hope the commissioners will go with the higher boat limit," Lee said Thursday. "Even with that, it would take a lot longer to recover our investment."

Currently, there is no daily limit on sea cucumbers for marine-life license holders. The limit on marine-life licenses is capped at the current 160. Recreational fish collectors have a five-cucumber daily limit.

The FWC in November moved toward the 200 limit but then reconsidered and asked staff to review other alternatives.

Many other traditional fish-management rules, like size limits, would be difficult to apply to sea cucumbers, staff said.

Virtually all of Florida's commercial sea-cucumber harvest before 2013 was limited to the aquarium trade, which took about 16,000 animals annually. Those numbers tripled in 2013 when a few marine-life collectors began selling to the food industry.

The Florida Marine Life Association, which represents many of the state's professional fish collectors, strongly endorses the 200 daily limit on sea cucumbers, said group President Jeff Turner.

"Most of the harvesting will probably occur off Sugarloaf Key to Key West, near this guy's fish house," Turner said. "The FMLA does not want to be responsible for the depletion of a fishery."

With the population of sea cucumbers in the Florida Keys uncertain, no one knows how many can be taken annually without harming the species or the marine environment, the FWC report says.

"We're only operating with three fishermen," Lee said. "It would be pretty difficult for us to wipe out an entire species."

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