HomeInvestigationsThe Illegal Sea Cucumber Trade in Kaukira, Honduras
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The Illegal Sea Cucumber Trade in Kaukira, Honduras

ENVIRONMENTAL CRIME / 14 MAY 2021 BY HÉCTOR SILVA ÁVALOS* EN

With supplies of sea cucumber waning in large parts of East Asia, Honduras has stepped into the breach. Brokers from Vietnam and Taiwan are now incongruous figures in small Honduran fishing villages, financing a thriving black market for the in-demand echinoderm.

Both banks of the salty canal near the town of Kaukira show vestiges of the boom and bust nature of life in this area. A pair of abandoned, two-story buildings lie near the end of the canal. Their rocky exteriors are held together by concrete, a luxury in places like this.

"They were nightclubs," Rony, a fisherman who has made his life on the boats that navigate these waters, told InSight Crime.

Nightclubs with good drink and prostitution, he specified, where motorboats outnumbered the 4x4 trucks that roam Kaukira located on a long tongue of land sitting on the northeastern tip of Honduras that can only be reached by boat.

*This is the second chapter of a four-part series on wildlife trafficking across Latin America, carried out over two years by InSight Crime in collaboration with American University’s Center for Latin American and Latino Studies. This investigation involved extensive fieldwork in Colombia, Honduras, Mexico and Peru, during which we interviewed dozens of government officials, members of security forces, academics, smugglers, landowners and local residents, among others.

The nightclubs were open until recently, Rony said, who asked that his last name not be used. The final nightclub closed in 2018, after the flow of money that brought cocaine to this archipelago began to fall after a series of raids by the Honduran Army and Navy, working with the United States Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA).

Even so, some remnants of those luxuries survive. There is, for instance, a metallic yellow Hummer SUV that wanders, indiscreetly, through the dusty streets of the village. And the boats remain in huge numbers, parked next to the small homemade docks that extend to both sides of the canal on which the village is scattered.

It was early May 2019 when we visited, about a month and a half before the beginning of the lobster, shrimp and sea cucumber fishing season. These are the legal products that Kaukira’s fishermen collect from the seabed around the coral reefs.

There are docks where up to four boats are parked, some with two outboard engines hanging on their hulls. The captains told us there are about 200 boats in Kaukira, which scoop up as much as 1,600 tons of sea cucumber during a six-month fishing season. These vessels are Kaukira's unofficial navy, its pride.

Its shame are the drugs. There is the story of Wilter Blanco Neptalí, the son of fishermen who became the head of the Atlantic Cartel. Or the story of Roberto and Seth Paisano, owners of fishing fleets and managers of the region's ruling National Party, who trafficked drugs and laundered money for the cartel.  

The local fishing fleets also played their role. Rony told InSight Crime that he once took a trip as the accountant on a lobster boat. During the trip, the captain, whom he called Edwin, told him that other captains kept in contact with Colombian and Jamaican speedboats who were moving cocaine off the Honduran coast.

Edwin also told him that when the speedboats felt cornered by Honduran or US naval vessels, they would drop the cocaine in the water and contact the boat captains. They would then retrieve the cocaine and store it in Kaukira until someone else would pick it up and send it on its journey north. InSight Crime spoke to other fishermen and a prosecutor who worked similar cases and corroborated this form of operating.

SEE ALSO: The Jaguar King Who Founded Honduras’ Little French Key Zoo

By 2010, with the growth of local drug trafficking groups like Blanco’s, these routes were some of the most active on the continent.

But the bust was coming. Blanco turned himself into authorities in 2016 and pled guilty to drug trafficking charges in the United States. The Paisano brothers were then captured in October 2019. And so the local fishermen turned to another product that drew far less law enforcement attention: sea cucumbers.

The trade was not exactly new. In Honduras' Bay Islands department (Islas de la Bahía), and specifically around the Caribbean island of Roatán, fishermen had been harvesting sea cucumber since 2007, albeit in small quantities.

That all changed when Taiwanese and Vietnamese intermediaries looking to supply their vibrant but depleted market in Asia arrived in Puerto Lempira, the capital of Gracias a Dios, and later in neighboring towns Brus Laguna and Kaukira. The foreigners explained that the sea cucumbers – which have the appearance of large slugs and inhabit the soil around the reef – were considered a delicacy in their part of the world.

And so began the next boom. In 2010, Honduras exported 550 tons of sea cucumber. By 2018, Honduras was exporting an estimated 1,600 tons, according to a report from the Central Bank of Honduras, which InSight Crime had access to. Kaukira is the epicenter of this trade. The Honduran government estimates that out of every ten tons of sea cucumber exported, eight are from the fishing banks around Kaukira.

Honduras: Too Far and Too Deep

In Honduras, there are two groups of animal species susceptible to illegal extraction and trafficking. One is made up of mammals and birds that inhabit protected forest areas. These are sold mostly on the domestic market as exotic pets. Common species trafficked in this group are red guaras, parrots, medium-sized felines, sloth bears and monkeys, according to experts at the Forest Conservation Institute (Instituto de Conservación Forestal - ICF). It is not big business, they insisted but rather families of poachers eking out a living.

A fisherman dives for lobster in Honduras. Photo: AP

The second group consists of marine species that mostly inhabit the ocean floor on the Honduras Atlantic Coast, specifically lobster, snail, jellyfish and sea cucumber. This is big business. For Honduras, the fishing industry is a lifeline. In 2019, Honduras registered $341 million in major seafood exports (shrimp, lobster and tilapia), behind only coffee, palm oil and bananas, according to a report from the Central Bank of Honduras which InSight Crime had access to.

Among this second group of legally registered marine exports is sea cucumber. However, millions of dollars of seafood products are also moved off the books, among them the vast majority of sea cucumbers harvested along Honduras’ northern coast.

The government has set up mechanisms to monitor and control the trade. It is difficult and expensive to get a license, and there are also yearly quotas established by Honduras' fishing regulatory agency, the Fishing and Agricultural Administration (Dirección General de Pesca y Agricultura Digepesca). They also send biologists to monitor the fishing fleets that scour the seafloor for these valuable products. But there are relatively easy ways to bypass the regulators and lawmakers, especially in a place that is so distant.  

Kaukira is located in the far northeast of the country where a jungle of precious woods and pines that extends inland towards the mountains gives way to the coastal plain. These open up into salty lagoons, which are hemmed in by small strips of land that separate the lagoons from the Caribbean.

Kaukira is on one of these archipelagos. It is literally where Honduras ends. What goes on in capital city Tegucigalpa, and other major cities like La Ceiba and San Pedro Sula, has little or no impact on remote Kaukira, its fishing business, the illegal drug trade, its booms, its busts, and the grey area where they all meet.

The sea cucumber trade is typical of this lack of oversight. Its dubious nature begins when divers fetch the slug-like creatures. Previously, when Honduran waters were replete with lobster, shrimp and snail, the divers harvesting this type of seafood mostly did not have to go deeper than 25 meters a depth that most international experts believe is already testing the human limits.

But that changed quickly with globalization and subsequent overfishing. By the early 1990s, divers had to make repeated trips well below 25 meters. From those depths, divers need to surface slowly or risk getting decompression disease. Going to those depths repeatedly in a single day only heightens the risk. Known popularly as the bends, decompression disease can lead to partial or permanent paralysis, blindness and even death.

One man we met, Erasmo Díaz, said that he’d first suffered from the bends in 1990. He had been diving for lobster for 12 days straight at depths of up to 40 meters. During a typical day, his first dive was at 8:00 a.m. By 4:00 p.m., he would have gone through 18 oxygen tanks.

"I knew I was deeper than I should have been," Díaz recalled. "[But I had] the need to find more product."

Díaz was sitting on a wooden bench in the small dive association premises in Puerto Lempira when he spoke to us. He was flanked by a metal desk, several drawers and a fan, which was turned off despite the sweltering heat sneaking in from the street.

At 5:00 p.m. on that twelfth day of diving, as he climbed from the sea, he couldn’t feel one leg. Three hours later, he couldn’t feel his body. "Up to here," he said, as he gestured towards his chest. It took a little while before the boat took him to the mothership, where they put him in an air decompression chamber, a treatment he would continue every day for two hours a day until he returned to shore.

By the time the fishing vessel docked, Erasmo Díaz's life had changed forever. The paralysis of his whole body subsided, but his right side remained substantially weaker and effectively ended his work as a diver. Díaz spent the next few years clamoring for assistance, but the company never responded, and the government never held it accountable, so in 2003, he founded the association of divers in Puerto Lempira. That was the office where we spoke. The association eventually sued the Honduran government, bringing the case of more than 2,000 divers before the Inter-American Court of Human Rights.

SEE ALSO: Coronavirus Has Not Slowed Looting of Latin America’s Maritime Species

The sea cucumber trade has increased the list of victims. In the last five years, Díaz claimed, the extraction of sea cucumber has killed at least 50 young divers.

"With the sea cucumber, more people have come [to dive]," he said. "There are more injured and dead."

Rony, the fisherman, agreed. He said the overfishing has pushed the boats further and further into the ocean, which has led to more and more injuries and deaths.

A Largely Illegal Trade

It is the boat captains who pay the divers. On average, 40 scuba divers with 40 assistants travel on these ships. Local recruiters called saca buzos (roughly translated as "get-a-diver") liaise with the divers to agree on what they believe is a base salary. They are usually told to expect around $300 for 22 days of offshore work. Half of that money is paid in advance. The other half is negotiated on the high seas, where the captains often abuse their power.

"They say that all the time: ‘On the ocean, I make the rules,’" Rony said.

The most common rule is lowering the price per pound when the boat is far away from the shore. But there are other tricks. One way to alleviate the effects of decompression is by smoking marijuana, which captains readily supply but discount from the divers’ base salaries. Captains also often pay less for smaller sea cucumbers.

There is some regulation. By law, a government biologist from Digepesca is required to travel on the boats. The biologist is supposed to check the size of the sea cucumber to ensure that the divers are not extracting sea cucumbers that have not reproduced. (The same is true for lobster and other species). The government is also supposed to count the sea cucumbers, to ensure that the captains are not passing their quotas. However, Rony said the captains will often bribe the regulators to turn a blind eye.

The levels of illegal extraction are staggering. In 2018, the Honduran government granted 36 fishing licenses. Each license authorized the extraction of 20,000 pounds of sea cucumbers, or 10 tons. In total, the government authorized 360 tons of sea cucumber extraction; local officials told InSight Crime the captains extracted more than four times that amount.

Part of this system relies on the informal workforce made up of hundreds of divers, which local officials said harvest between 90 and 95 percent of the sea cucumbers in the area. But part of it relies on corruption, malfeasance, and a lack of resources. The government, for example, does not have a significant presence in Kaukira where most of the trading occurs.

Most of the sea cucumbers retrieved from the seabed go from the divers to the captains, and then to ports like Kaukira’s, where Honduran and Asian intermediaries pay cash for them. According to dozens of interviews with officials and fishermen in the area, these intermediaries also finance boats, pay for gasoline, give advances to divers, and finance the illegal extraction of the merchandise. They also sometimes cover the divers' equipment costs: 35,000 lempiras (about $1,400) for each air compressor and 18,000 lempiras (about $740) per dive tank.

Captains of the Ship

During a visit to the area, InSight Crime spoke with several ship captains, including one of the most well-known in Kaukira. His name is Fausto Echeverría. When we met, Echevarría was wearing shorts, a T-shirt, and a baseball hat. It’s kind of the unofficial captain’s uniform, we found, as we made the rounds.

In addition to captaining his own boat, he has several relatives who manage the smaller vessels that take divers out to harvest all kinds of marine life. These days, however, they rely mostly on the sea cucumber trade.

It can be good business. On average, each boat takes in some 3,000 pounds per trip, with middlemen paying a typical rate of 200 lempiras (about $8) per pound. This means they get about $25,000 per trip, which usually lasts three weeks. Per season, each boat makes six trips, so the captain can net $150,000 per season.

Of course, that is far less than what can be made in Asia. In the formal Hong Kong market, according to 2015 estimates by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), one pound of sea cucumber could fetch $230. At that price, the amount of sea cucumber extracted by a single Honduran fishing boat in an ordinary season could sell for around $690,000 on the Asian market.

Dried sea cucumbers for sale at a market in Hong Kong. Photo: Stock

It is an even more profitable business when avoiding the overheads that come with regulation. Fishing licenses are limited and those that are available cost about 100,000 lempiras (about $4,000). Therefore, the captains told us, it is cheaper to trade illegally. And if the Navy seizes the fishing gear – diving equipment and big, outboard engines, for instance – a captain with the right connections on the ground can get it all back, after paying a fine of 5,000 lempiras (about $200).

What’s more, the market is volatile and subject to manipulation. Sometimes, Echeverría said, the Asian intermediaries undercut the locals, or they send Honduran intermediaries to do so, offering take it or leave it ultimatums.

The intermediaries also have clout because of the money they provide to the fishermen. Captains in Kaukira told InSight Crime that cash from intermediaries allows boats to be readied for several weeks at sea.

And when money is short, or the harvest thin, the boats turn to other products: lobster, snails, jellyfish or drugs. Kaukira's navy is not about to go hungry.  

"We do it quietly," a captain with a red cap told us. See. Hear. Keep quiet. It is the unwritten law of these waters. "All of us [here] depend on it."

*This is the second chapter of a four-part series on wildlife trafficking across Latin America, carried out over two years by InSight Crime in collaboration with American University’s Center for Latin American and Latino Studies. This investigation involved extensive fieldwork in Colombia, Honduras, Mexico and Peru, during which we interviewed dozens of government officials, members of security forces, academics, smugglers, landowners and local residents, among others.

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