A three year ban introduced in 2012 has been lifted due to pressure from exporters.
Tonga’s sea cucumber exports reached a peak in 2009 after a 10-year moratorium, when it brought in US$6.5 milllion of foreign earnings.
The 10-year moratorium was a desperate measure to replenish the stock which was depleted due to illegal and uncontrolled harvesting.
However, since 2009 because of high demand from the Asian market for dried sea cucumber, and government not being able to control illegal harvesting, the experts said that the stock was again very low and in desperate need of replenishing.
The situation is complicated by the facts that the demand for dried sea cucumber is high, and the exporters are willing to pay high prices.
The local people, who are harvesting the sea cucumber, are usually in a poor financial situation and are willing to risk their lives, using illegal or unsafe diving apparatus to dive for sea cucumber.
In spite of the effort by government and fisheries experts to allocate a set time of the year, from April to September to harvest sea cucumber, and processing processed controlled by licencing of processors and exporters, illegal harvesting to meet the demand is rampant.
Poasi Ngaluafe, the head of the Tonga Fisheries Divisionsaid the 2014 sea cucumber harvesting season became effective immediately from April 1, 2014 until further notice.
Semisi Fakahau, a fishery consultant who has been working with the Fishery Division during the past few years also questioned the logic of the cabinet decision, bearing in mind that there is evidence that the stock is depleting very fast.
He also believed that there are a number of issues that government has to address, such as illegal fishing for sea cucumber to feed a thriving black market.
And most crucial for Tonga is the growing number of local divers who have either died or left in a debilitated state after using the illegal method of diving known as hookah diving.
The processing and the exporting of sea cucumber is generally in two parts – the harvesting which is diving and collecting of the sea cucumber, usually carried out by local people who do not have to get a license to do that.
Secondly, the processing and the exporting of the sea cucumber is normally carried out by Asians, mainly Chinese, and they have to acquire licenses.
In 2013 there were nine license holders, five in Tongatapu, and two each in Vava’u and Ha’apai.
This year, 2014 there are nine license holders again, but four in Tongatapu three in Ha’apai and two in Vava’u.
He said that in 2009 Tonga exported 369 tonnes of dried sea cucumber, all of it to Asia, but by 2012 Tonga’s total export was only 67 tonnes, accompanied by a big drop in foreign earnings from about $12 million in 2009 to only $265,000 in 2012 and 2013.
He believed that the decision by government to allow the harvesting, processing and the exporting of sea cucumber was not an economic decision, “it is purely a political decision,” and unfortunately it will completely kill the sea cucumber exporting industry,” he said.