From all outward appearances, the rubbery and slimy sea cucumber looks anything but appetizing. But in Asia, they are viewed as a delicacy.
There is a growing overseas market for the sea slug, which is commonly found in Florida Keys waters. The emerging market has the Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission (FWC) considering tighter restrictions on sea cucumber harvesting.
The FWC board will vote Wednesday on a proposal to limit the daily commercial harvest of sea cucumbers to 200 per vessel per day, according to spokeswoman Amanda Nalley. Currently, commercial fishermen with a basic saltwater products license can harvest as many as they want.
There are roughly 160 commercial sea cucumber harvesters from the Keys to Palm Beach County with a majority of the collecting occurring in the Keys, according to FWC data. Several of the collectors sell to the Florida Sea Cucumber Corp. on Ramrod Key.
Florida Sea Cucumber Corp. owner Erik Lee plans to voice his opposition to the 200-per vessel daily quota when the FWC meets Wednesday in Tampa. Lee contended that the allowable daily catch should be more in the 500 to 800 range.
"That would run me out of business," Lee said of the 200 per vessel per day proposal. He argued that he can only afford to pay fishermen between $1 to 50 cents per sea cucumber. Being allowed to take just 200 would barely cover the fishermen's fuel bills and other costs, Lee said.
"I am not opposed to daily trip limits, but the regulations need to be fair," he said.
Lee plans to breed the sea cucumbers and "put back what we take," he said. Lee's Ramrod Key plant does have aquaculture capabilities, he said.
He also argued that it is the unlicensed companies collecting and selling them that is bringing scrutiny to the business.
Lee has a permit with the Florida Department of Agriculture to harvest and export sea cucumbers to Asian markets, and he has significantly invested in his Ramrod Key plant to meet state and federal health codes. Adding to his costs is the fact that the process of gutting the sea cucumbers, drying them and shipping them is expensive, Lee said.
Lee started his operation 18 months ago after moving back to the Keys from China, where people eat sea cucumbers in stir fry concoctions, or grind them into a powder and take them as a medicinal supplement for joint pain or other health purposes. They are also viewed as an aphrodisiac in China, Lee said.
Sea cucumbers are sedentary marine invertebrates that live in shallow water areas such as seagrass beds, lagoons and nearshore reefs. They are vulnerable to overfishing because of their visible and sedentary nature, which makes them easy to locate and collect, according to FWC officials.
Sea cucumbers are broadcast spawners, meaning they release their sperm and eggs into the water column, according to FWC officials. This spawning behavior also contributes to slow recovery times once the population becomes depleted. In the case of sea cucumbers, recovery can take decades, FWC officials point out.