By B. Chen
The Department of Marine and Wildlife Resources (DMWR) has taken action to manage the removal of sea cucumbers. Last week, Governor Lolo Moliga issued a “moratorium on taking and removing sea cucumbers” in American Samoa and its Exclusive Economic Zone for a period of six months.
The moratorium allows DMWR to conduct a study on the sea cucumber population and density, and after such time DMWR will provide a report to the Governor of its findings and propose regulations regarding the harvesting of sea cucumbers, said DMWR Director Dr. Ruth Matagi-Tofiga in an email to the Samoa News on Friday.
The moratorium applies to individuals, boats, vessels, corporations, organizations, and any other public or private entity.
“Our enforcement officers are now out enforcing the moratorium, and we are working with the Office of Samoan Affairs – through the Pulenu’u (mayors) – to assist us,” Matagi-Tofiga explained.
She is urging members of the public to report sea cucumber fishing to the DMWR office at 633-4456.
Anyone who is caught taking and removing sea cucumbers will be penalized according to the American Samoa Fishing Regulations as noted in the American Samoa Code Annotated. Fines and penalties will be imposed.
Matagi-Tofiga said employees of the DMWR education division will be conducting outreach education programs in schools, villages, and youth organizations on the importance of sea cucumbers in reef recycling.
“Sea cucumbers are recyclers of nutrients, contributing to our rich marine environment,” the DMWR director said.
“Our Community Fisheries Management Program, through their village outreach, will also stress to our villages the importance of sea cucumbers to our marine environment.”
DMWR’s Chief Wildlife Biologist Dr. Domingo Ochavillo and fisheries biologist Alice Lawrence, with the assistance of DMWR technicians, have in place a survey to collect data on sea cucumber population.
“I remember growing up both in Tutuila and when we use to visit our family in Faleasao, Manu’a, we would harvest loli (lollyfish), mamao (redfish) and fugafuga (leopardfish) enough to fill a small mayonnaise bottle,” Matagi-Tofiga reminisced. “The rest was left to grow and multiply. Now, harvesting of sea cucumbers has increased due to Asian businessmen wishing to export them for high-value markets in Asia.”
In addition to American Samoa, other Pacific island countries like independent Samoa, Tonga, Vanuatu, Fiji, the Solomon Islands, and Papua New Guinea have also imposed bans on the collection and export of sea cucumbers in an effort to rehabilitate their stocks, following excessive overfishing.
“Therefore, I appeal to the public: please report any sightings of individuals fishing for sea cucumbers to DMWR or your pulenu’u. Let’s work together to control our sea cucumber exploitation,” Matagi-Tofiga concluded.
The Governor’s moratorium dated December 4, 2013 came after a noticeable increase in sea cucumber fishing activities in the territory over the past few months, particularly on the reefs at Fagaalu and Utulei.
A few months ago, local fishermen were reported to have been getting $3 per sea cucumber for the larger more valuable redfish cucumbers; but last week, fishermen were only getting $10 for a bucket-full of the less valuable black sea cucumbers – a worrying sign, as many sea cucumber populations have already been wiped out in the region.