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Sea cucumber boom threatens stock

CHINA - The price of domestic sea cucumbers is soaring due to rising exports to China, where the popularity of the delicacy is growing.

Sea cucumbers are sorted at Tobu fisheries cooperative's branch in Yokosuka, Kanagawa Prefecture.

Dried black sea cucumbers are particularly popular in China as a premium food. The fondness for the product has pushed up exports by several billion yen a year, giving it the nickname "the black diamond of the sea."

Although the boom offers momentum for the fishing industry, some are concerned over a decline in stock due to large catches and smuggling.

"There are some big ones are in today's catch," an upbeat fisherman said recently at Shinyasuura Port in Yokosuka, Kanagawa Prefecture.

"Be careful, it's heavy," said another. The sea cucumbers that arrived in the port are weighed and boxed quickly by the fisheries cooperative employees.

"I caught 80 kilograms of sea cucumbers in 90 minutes," said a beaming Tatsuo Watanabe, 30.

Shipments of black sea cucumbers from the port began in 2003.

Black sea cucumbers used to be unpopular as a raw dish and ones caught in nets were often thrown away. But now they are a leading marine product. Whereas black sea cucumbers previously fetched about 300 yen per kilogram, as of January they have been going for about 900 yen per kilogram.

Export statistics on sea cucumbers and related products first appeared in the Finance Ministry's data in 2004.

Export volume of sea cucumbers reached 222 tons in 2004, and rose to 230 tons in 2005 and 245 tons up to November 2006. The export value rose from 5.4 billion yen in 2004, to 7.8 billion yen in 2005, and jumped to 10.9 billion yen up to November 2006. The expansion in trade is unusual for a marine product.

Fully dried sea cucumbers can fetch more than 70,000 yen per kilogram.

Aomori Prefectural Fisheries Research Center Aquaculture Institute in Hiranaimachi, Aomori Prefecture, which is studying artificial incubation of sea cucumbers, receives many inquiries from companies in the prefecture on building breeding facilities.

"If this trend continues, we could run out of natural sea cucumbers," an official at the institute said.

"Sea cucumbers do not breed easily, so they could become extinct if the boom continues," said Assistant Prof. Seiichi Okumura of Kitasato University's School of Fisheries.

Source: Daily Yomiuri Online