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Divers take deep risks to catch precious cucumbers

Update: March, 04/2017 - 09:00
Sea cucumbers are a marine delicacy said to help cure quite a few diseases. - Photo
Viet Nam News

NGHỆ AN — Along Diễn Hải beach in central Nghệ An Province, large groups of divers often return from the sea with packages full of sea cucumbers. Then the divers sell the “delicate” marine animal and earn millions of đồng each day.

Sea cucumber catching has become a trend among professional and non-professional divers in the region, as the animal brings such a huge profit in a short catching time.

Sea cucumbers, or holothuria, are a marine delicacy that is said to help cure quite a few diseases including diabetes, heart disease, kidney failure. It also increases metabolism, cures joint pain and lowers cholesterol.

A diver named Hùng told Nông Thôn Ngày Nay (Countryside Today) newspaper that about a decade ago, local fishermen caught sea cucumbers and sold them to traders for traditional medicine stores at a low price of VNĐ20,000 to 30,000 (US$0.9-1.3) per kilo.

In the past seven years, the health functions of the animal have spread out so their prices have been multiplied. One kilogram of sea cucumbers, depending on the species (sandfish, curryfish, or surf redfish) varies from VNĐ300,000 to VNĐ700,000 ($13-31). Black teatfish can be sold at up to VNĐ3 million ($130).

“Fishermen stop catching fish to catch sea cucumbers. It takes effort, but not much money. We need only a 50cm-steel stick and a diving suit to do the job,” Hùng said.

“Sometimes we are lucky and earn up to VNĐ10 million ($445) per day. Thanks to this job, I can build a house and nurture my four children.”

Hùng estimated that there are up to 300 professional sea cucumber catchers in Diễn Hải Commune. There are countless seasonal catchers.

He said that previously, sea cucumbers could be found within 1.5m from the shore. Now the number of sea cucumbers has been on the decline due to overfishing.

“Now for the whole day we can catch only 1kg. If this trend is ongoing, sea cucumbers will soon be extinct,” Hùng said.

Sea cucumbers are also a signature dish at restaurants in the area at the price of VNĐ200,000 to VND500,000 ($9-22), being served steamed with mugwort, porridge, or stir fried sea cucumbers with chilly and lemongrass.

Nam, a restaurant owner in Diễn Hải beach area told Nông Thôn Ngày Nay that although the dishes are quite expensive, many customers still want to try them. Each day some 100kg of sea cucumbers are provided to patrons at his restaurant.

Sometimes customers have to reserve the dishes, as Chinese traders buy them at high prices.

Risky job

According to professional divers, February to June are the productive time for sea cucumber catching. Sea cucumbers types such as sandfish, curryfish, or surf redfish can be found at the depth of 1.5 to 30m, while black teatfish can be found at 50-70m. The deeper the sea cucumbers are found, the more value they have.

Phạm Hà, a cucumber diver, said that fishermen would need only a pair of glasses, breathing equipment, T-shirt, shorts, even no T-shirt to dive into the depth of 50-70m.

The job brings about high earnings, however, it is also risky.

Divers can stay underwater for 30 minutes maximum. Otherwise, water pressure might cause damage, such as paralysis or even death.

“I nearly lost my life twice on the sea bed at the depth of 60m. I also witnessed the death of my fellow diver three years ago due to breathing system failure,” Hà said.

Given this risk, Hà decided to catch the animal near the shore, which is easier and brings him nearly VNĐ1million ($44.5) for about 2 kg.

The biggest difficulty, according to him, is locating the creature, as sea cucumbers are covered under sand layers. Only its flowery head sticks out. Sea cucumbers are very slippery so only experienced catchers can touch and skillfully remove them.

Other divers also say that when catching sea cucumbers near the shore, divers might be driven away by waves brought by offshore sea currents or be killed by black sea snakes.

Most in danger, however, are the cucumbers themselves.

Phạm Văn Ngọc, a fisherman in Diễn Kim Commune, shared his worry about sea cucumber’s extinction risks, saying that scientists should study how to multiply the marine animal for commodity. It will help reduce poverty and hunger for local fishermen. — VNS



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