It looks like a bumpy, squishy pile of poo but the unassuming sea cucumber is a much sought after critter. The victim of a vast smuggling and illegal trade network, this invertebrate (spineless animal) is highly sought after for medicinal use, such as ‘minyak gamat’.
While some sea cucumbers are bred, many are illegally collected in huge numbers because of their high value. For example, 1kg of dried sea cucumber can cost RM700. Because they are very light when dried, this means that many are taken to reach this weight. Unfortunately, some sea cucumbers have become highly endangered because of this trade and some are eaten as a tonic, as people believe that it’s helpful in reducing arthritis pain and nourishes the blood.
So much sea cucumber has been taken from our waters that we are now importing from Thailand and even the US to satisfy demand. But the sea cucumber serves more important functions when it is alive and wild at sea. Sea cucumbers suck up sediment on the sea floor, filtering it for nutrients and recycling it as clean sand piles. It repopulates very slowly, which means that if many are taken for food or medicine, it can easily go extinct.
Watching a sea cucumber feed can be hypnotic as you see the tentacles come out of its mouth and feel around for sand to ingest. Close observation also reveals the amazing details and colours of this much abused creature.