What crawls across the sea floor, can cost more than silver by the pound, and, according to several seemingly reputable scientific sources, "breathes" through its anus?
Meet the sea cucumber — the latest addition to the annals of South Florida wildlife smuggling.
In the same taxonomic group as starfish and sea urchins, the spongy, sightless animals are harvested worldwide for food products, and in some Asian cultures, are prized for use in traditional medicine. Perhaps on account of certain species' phallic, tubular shape, they have also developed a reputation in China as an aphrodisiac.
Despite the growth of commercial production and a marine farming industry for sea cucumbers in recent years, the black market for the creatures' carcasses is alive and thriving.
The United States Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) says it recently caught a woman trying to sneak into Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport with spiny black sea cucumbers concealed in clothing in her luggage. Arriving from Managua, Nicaragua, she allegedly tried to pass them off as fish-belly products, though she later admitted they were the remains of cucumbers of the sea. When a customs officer pressed her on the species and origin, she "would not provide that information," FWS says.
The woman, identified in the court docket as Xiao Pingping, was charged with smuggling and failing to declare the sea cucumbers to customs agents.
The feds had been on the lookout for Xiao for more than a year.
She previously sent an illegal shipment containing 435 sea cucumbers, 33 sea horses, and 16 shark fins to a Florida resident in January 2022, wildlife officials claim. The shipment allegedly lacked a special export permit, which was required for the sea horses since they are listed under a treaty known as the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES).
In 2021, Xiao sent illegal shipments from Brazil to the U.S. containing dried meat from protected caiman, as well as great hammerhead and mako shark fins, FWS claims. Upon her November arrest in South Florida, she was charged with additional federal counts for the wildlife exports between 2021 and 2022.
Common sea cucumbers fetch $10 a kilogram or less wholesale. But rarer species cherished as an elite delicacy can reportedly sell for upwards of a thousand dollars per pound, such as the Japanese sea cucumber, Apostichopus japonicus.
Over the last 10 years, countless media reports highlighted high demand for the bottom-dwelling marine animals. Though their consumption in Asia created a market centuries ago — with sea cucumbers serving as a Chinese royal delicacy since the Ming dynasty — new demand has arisen from their use in products manufactured by nutritional supplement companies, some of which attempt to capitalize on claims that the creatures contain cures for various ailments. (One wholesale supplier on Alibaba advertises dried sea cucumber has "anti-aging" effects, resolves osteoporosis, and helps the consumer "recover strength.")
While the global demand has helped sustain small fishing communities in developing countries, over-harvesting has led to devastation of sea cucumber populations in once-thriving local fisheries.
Some nations, including India, banned the export of sea cucumbers to prevent depletion. Over the last decade, Fiji has intermittently prohibited sea cucumber exports, described by a local Fijian media outlet as "one of the oldest trades" in the country, though the current government appears to be easing restrictions.
"Once the population density gets too low, sea cucumbers will be too far apart and fertilization is unlikely. We still don’t know very much about the reproductive biology of these animals, but data suggests for some species that fertilization success falls to zero when animals are spaced more than 20 to 40 meters apart," Wildlife Conservation Society's Stacy Jupiter explained to the Living Oceans Foundation.
Sea cucumbers are thought to play a key role in nutrient cycling on the ocean floor by scavenging for algae, plankton, and marine life waste, and then expelling excrement rich in nitrogen and phosphorus (which they sometimes do in dramatic fashion, as seen below). They are echinoderms — a diverse class of invertebrates with small tube feet, no brain, and a striking ability to regenerate body parts and organs.
A string of sea cucumber smuggling busts over the last five years shows wildlife officials are cracking down on stateside illegal trade in the animals.
A Tuscon company and its owner were slapped with a nearly million dollar fine in 2018 as part of a federal prosecution in which they were accused of illegal trafficking in wildlife, stemming from the importation of $17 million worth of sea cucumbers. Two years later, a Tijuana man was sentenced to six months on sea cucumber smuggling charges after he was nabbed in California with 300 pounds of carcasses hidden around toolboxes in the bed of his truck.
This past August, a pair pleaded guilty in San Diego federal court to a conspiracy to illegally import sea cucumbers. They were trying to rake in revenue on the brown sea cucumber, Isostichopus fuscus, a Pacific Coast species that is classified as endangered and sells for as much as $200 a pound.
Of the more than 1,200 species of sea cucumbers, Isostichopus fuscus is one of the few requiring a CITES permit for exportation. A nearly 20-year campaign to start protecting and monitoring the animals under the treaty culminated in 2019, when the first sea cucumber species was listed under CITES.
As anyone following local headlines is aware, South Florida airports are a hotbed of activity for animal smugglers and illicit import of marine-life products.
The Miami Herald documented how airport officials were struggling to keep up with the inflow of smuggled wildlife and animal products in the region as far back as 2014. The report made note of the recovery of 200 flying squirrels, as well as law enforcement efforts to use trained dogs to sniff out rhino horn, dried sea horses, and turtle shells. Much of the illegal activity came through Miami International Airport, whose sheer volume of commercial live-animal shipments posed a challenge for inspectors.
New Times broke the news last March of an exotic-bird smuggling operation at Miami International Airport that was thwarted when Customs and Border Protection heard a faint chirping sound coming from a passenger's luggage. Customs agents found a lunchbox-style container rigged with a thermometer, housing 29 eggs, several of which had already hatched. The passenger, who pleaded guilty in May, had arrived in Miami via Managua, Nicaragua, the same city from which the alleged sea cucumber smuggler departed.