Quest for Illegal Gain at the Sea Bottom Divides Fishing Communities By karla zabludovsky

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Quest for Illegal Gain at the Sea Bottom Divides Fishing Communities


DZILAM DE BRAVO, Mexico — Whispers of high-speed boat chases, harpoon battles on the open sea and divers who dived deep and never re-emerged come and go around here like an afternoon gale.

The fishermen eye strangers — and one another — with deep suspicion. “We’ll tear them apart,” said one, Jorge Luis Palma, squinting into the horizon at a boat he did not recognize.

What has wrapped this village in such hostility?

Sea cucumbers.

The spiky, sluglike marine animals are bottom feeders that are not even consumed in Mexico, but they are a highly prized delicacy half a world away, in China, setting off a maritime gold rush up and down the Yucatán Peninsula.

“There is tension,” said Manuel Sierra, one of the unofficial leaders of the fishermen here, “and now it has exploded.”

There has been an indefinite ban on harvesting sea cucumbers, but it has been loosely enforced, and the black market is thriving.

With a growing Chinese middle class, demand for sea cucumbers has soared, depleting populations in Asian and Pacific waters because of overfishing.

“Sea cucumber fever,” as residents call it, has taken a toll here, too. Of the estimated 20,000 tons available in 2009, only 1,900 tons are left, according to Felipe Cervera, secretary of rural development in Quintana Roo State.

The ban, meant to give the population time to replenish, came during seasonal bans on grouper, octopus and lobster. With few alternative sources of income, some fishermen are going after the sea cucumbers clandestinely, far from the coast and often in the middle of the night.

Once they have harvested and prepared the sea cucumbers, fishermen sell them to people they call “intermediaries,” who coordinate the overland journey to ports in northern Mexico. From there, where the authorities are less concerned with illegal sea products than with drug shipments, the sea cucumbers are shipped to China, where a single pound can sell for $300.

With the quest to meet demand and cash in — fishermen here can make more than $700 on a good day — have come tales of derring-do and danger.

Local residents have turned the Yucatán waters, only intermittently patrolled by the authorities, into a kind of Wild West, with communities claiming and guarding their slices of the marine pie. Coastal towns are growing increasingly hostile to one another as neighbors are divided between those who respect the bans and those who fish illegally. The growing divisions within and between these communities have already led to violence.

In late January, fishermen here in Dzilam de Bravo detained a boat from the nearby village of Progreso, brought it to shore and burned it. In cellphone video captured by a resident and shown on Milenio Television, a crowd can be heard cheering as bright flames engulf the small craft.

During a town meeting here this month, shouts filled a tense conference room in the municipal palace as community members fought over what to do about the growing problem of “outsiders” seeking local fishing rights.

The Mexican Navy has been deployed in Yucatán waters, though patrols are irregular. The government has set up at least 15 checkpoints along highways in the state to deter sea cucumber shipments and their traffickers.

In Celestún, a town 120 miles west of here, a group of fishermen recently flipped over a van belonging to the National Aquaculture and Fishing Commission, rumored to be transporting a confiscated sea cucumber shipment. Fishermen have grown increasingly hostile toward the authorities, who they believe are cracking down on certain groups while, for a fee, helping others traffic in the contraband product.

Those involved in this bonanza risk more than jail time.

Fishermen talk of violence at sea, though they never report it to the authorities. Some say the people involved in the trade have shot at competitors to scare them away. Others speak of rapid retreats prompted by the sudden appearance of rivals or the authorities, leaving poachers who were diving below stranded at sea. Indeed, untrained and under equipped, many fishermen here have put down their harpoons and become divers in record time.

They plunge to depths of more than 50 feet with little more than a mask, their undergarments, a rickety hose for oxygen and a net, harvesting the glacial-paced animals like farmers picking strawberries.

Often, they come up too quickly or suffer other diving injuries. In Celestún, an estimated 30 fishermen have died from decompression sickness while harvesting sea cucumbers since 2009, according to Álvaro Hernández, a researcher at the National Fisheries Institute.

“My children ask for him and I just don’t know what to tell them,” said Blanca Mezeta, 26, who said her husband died in January after diving for sea cucumbers. He felt sick after ascending, but his boss insisted that they take the day’s catch to the buyer before going to a clinic.

The fishing is leaving an environmental mess, too. A recent visit by boat to a clandestine preparation site, where the recently harvested animals are boiled and salted, revealed rusted caldrons and hundreds of black plastic bags strewn around bushes and trees in Celestún National Park, a protected biosphere reserve. Sea cucumber remains, beer bottles and empty cigarette packs dotted the coastline.

Navigating back into the harbor, Roman Agusto Flores, a lifelong fisherman in Celestún who opposes the poaching, discreetly pointed out the different groups of men sitting on docked boats, distinguishing between those who engage in the illegal sea cucumber trade and those who are restraining themselves. The two groups do not mix, he said.

“We have ruined everything ourselves,” Mr. Flores said.

Standing by the entrance to her shack at the end of a dirt road in Celestún, Ms. Mezeta, the woman who lost her husband, remembered asking him to stay away from sea cucumbers. “Stick with fish,” she said, fighting back tears. “Even if it’s less money, we’ll still eat.”


  1. Describe a sea cucumber.

  2. What is causing all the controversy?

  3. How much have the numbers dropped since 2009?

  4. Once the sea cucumbers have been harvested, describe their trip across the world.

  5. How much can fishermen make harvesting these sea cucumbers?

  6. What did disgruntled fishermen in Celestun do? Why?

  7. What other issues are these fishermen facing? Why is it a life-threatening business?

  8. What do you think the government should do to help this situation?

To Catch a Tarpon, Be Ready for a Fight


JUCARO, Cuba — I stood on the bow of a Dolphin skiff anchored at the edge of a large channel in Jardines de la Reina. The incoming tide flooded through the strait with the Caribbean, a patchwork of shifting blues and greens, stretching to the south.

“They’re coming,” my guide, Leonardo Arche, cried out. A dozen silhouettes appeared 75 yards in front of the boat, their shape unmistakable against the white sand bottom as they moved toward us: tarpon.

“Cast now,” he barked. After two false casts, I dropped the fly, a chartreuse Toad with a menacing 3/0 hook, a few yards in front of the fish, 25 yards away.

“Strip,” Arche instructed. One strip of the fly, and a fish peeled away from the school. A second strip, and the tarpon’s basketball-size mouth closed over the fly.

“Set,” Arche yelled, and I pulled back hard on the line. The fish — 75 to 85 pounds, we estimated — catapulted into the air, sunlight sparkling upon its large silver scales and the droplets of water its flight had displaced.

Jardines de la Reina is a 75-mile-long archipelago of mangroves and coral islands 60 miles off the southern coast of Cuba. Designated a national park in 1996 by the Cuban government, Los Jardines is closed to commercial fishing, inhabitation and almost any other visitation. Since the park was established, limited sport fishing and diving have been available through a joint venture between the government and an Italian outfitter, Avalon, which operates several mother ships along the archipelago. Guests dine and sleep on the ships, and take skiffs to the fishing and diving grounds.

“There are very few places left in the Caribbean that are undiscovered and pristine,” said Jim Klug, the director of operations for Yellow Dog Fly-fishing Adventures, a travel company based in Bozeman, Mont. “I visit saltwater fishing destinations all over the world, and when you arrive in Jardines, you pretty much feel as if you’re the first person to set foot there.

“On a given week, you have a maximum of 24 anglers fishing an area the size of the Florida Keys. The lack of anglers make the fish susceptible to flies — especially the tarpon. In many places, tarpon can be spooky. In Cuba, they’ll eat the fly 95 out of 100 times. Oftentimes, you’re casting at fish that have never been fished to before.”

Tarpon, nicknamed silver kings by aficionados, are found on both sides of the Atlantic. In the Western Hemisphere, they mostly inhabit warmer coastal waters in the Gulf of Mexico, Florida and the West Indies, with fish found as far south as Argentina and north to Chesapeake Bay.

Tarpon are readily distinguishable by their silvery sides, monumental mouth (the fish’s lower mandible extends well beyond its gape) and significant size; Atlantic tarpon longer than 8 feet and weighing more than 300 pounds have been caught, though anglers are more likely to encounter fish between 60 and 150 pounds.

In the western Caribbean and Gulf Coast, tarpon season reaches its apex in late spring when migratory fish join resident schools as they gather to spawn. Surprisingly, little is known about the life cycle of the fish.

“Research suggests that tarpon spawn offshore, though we don’t know where,” said Aaron Adams, the director of operations for Bonefish and Tarpon Trust, a conservation organization. “We’re also not sure where the fish go in the winter.”

One thing is clear about tarpon: their appeal to anglers.

“It’s as if you’re sight-fishing to dinosaurs,” Adams said. “They’ve been around in their present form for tens of millions of years. You’re trying to fool a fish that can be older than you — some live to 80 years — into eating a fly; and once they eat, there are the jumps. Tarpon have been the ruin of many an angler.”

The first fish that I hooked spit the fly after its first elegant, arcing leap above the crystalline waters of Los Jardines. Other encounters followed, all equally ephemeral. For many species I’ve fished for, making the proper presentation of the fly and setting the hook is 90 percent of the game. In the pursuit of adult tarpon, this is only the beginning.

Once the tarpon has taken the fly, time seems to accelerate exponentially. Line that you have stripped in around your feet speeds back through the guides of the rod. En route, there are ample opportunities to tangle around your shirt button, your reel or your toes; I parted ways with three fish this way. Fail to put enough pressure on the line, generally by pressing it against the rod handle with your index finger, and the hook will not set securely in the tarpon’s tough jaw. Put too much pressure on, and you can pop the leader or cause the rod sections to come apart. I lost two fish like that.

When the tarpon jumps, you must be sure to lower or bow the rod to provide slack line so the pressure of the fish’s fall to the water does not pull the fly loose. Of all the aspects of tarpon fishing, this may be the hardest to master. When a fish as long as you leaps clear of the water 30 feet away and seems to look you in the eye, your instinct is to raise the rod in defense — an almost sure way for the fish to become disengaged.

By week’s end, I hooked and lost nine tarpon at Jardines de le Reina.

“You only land one out of every 10 fish that you hook,” an angling friend offered as solace.

Perhaps the next one will be mine.


  1. Describe Jardines de la Reina.

  2. What features are offered in this place?

  3. How many anglers are fishing on an average day?

  4. What does the lack of fishermen mean to the tarpon?

  5. Describe the tarpon fish.

  6. In at least 3 sentences, how does the author describe his fly fishing experience and risks?

  7. What does the author say his catch record was?

Giant squid population is one big happy species

Elusive deep ocean dwellers have low genetic diversity despite living around the globe

By Tina Hesman Saey

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