For the first time, American Samoa has banned the removal of sea cucumbers after fisheries officials reported reefs being stripped bare of the species.
The over-fishing, and illegal harvesting, of sea cucumbers is a problem that has been with other Pacific Island nations for years, but has only recently found its way to America Samoa.
Leilani Momoisea looks at the difficulties the region faces in conserving sea cucumber,
The American Samoa governor Lolo Matalasi Moliga has placed a six-month moratorium on the taking and removing of sea cucumbers in American Samoa, and its Exclusive Economic Zone. A fisheries biologist with the department of marine and wildlife resources, Alice Lawrence, says Samoans typically would take sea cucumbers for personal use only, or sell a small amount at the markets. But she says recently the species have been removed at an alarming rate.
"ALICE LAWRENCE: But what we were seeing was thousands, thousands and thousands of sea cucumber just being removed from the reef. They were just removing everything, they were not leaving anything there. The Samoans are fishing it, but they were actually selling it, or there are some Asian businessmen who are actually buying it and the idea is that they are going to export it to Asia and sell it for a lot of money. It's really a big commercial operation."
She says the reason it's so worrying, and why they pushed for a moratorium, is because they've seen the same thing happen in other parts of the region. In Tonga, a 10-year moratorium allowed sea cucumber levels to recover, but once lifted in 2008, people failed to harvest them sustainably. The head of Aquaculture Research in Tonga, Poasi Ngaluafe, says levels never recovered enough for commercial use. He says last year, it was recommended that another ban be put be in place, but political and community pressure prevented this.
POASI NGALUAFE: We need to ban commercial fishing, because the resource have declined, overfished. Based on the export production, 2009 and 2010, it was big, about 300 tonnes, come down to 2011 and 12, it's less that 100 tonnes. The same effort, the same fishing period, but less production, that's why we propose to recommend to the cabinet to close for another couple of years.
He says even a number of deaths related to sea cucumber harvesting has not stopped illegal fishing, because people are motivated by making money. In Vanuatu, there is a moratorium on sea cucumber in place until 2019.The principal compliance officer for the Ministry of Fisheries, Felix Toa Ngwango, says they must be very careful when the time comes for it to be lifted.
FELIX TOA NGWANGO: We can't just open it nationally, we just have to go by province, because there are six provinces in Vanuatu, we can't just make a full open season for everybody to have access to because if we do that, then all of a sudden after a month or so, then we don't have any sea cucumber because everyone is harvesting it. We just need to find a way that will work best, so that we have reserves and we don't over-fish sea cucumber.
Back in American Samoa, the Department of Marine and Wildlife Resources is to study the sea cucumber count during its six-month moratorium, and will make a plan for its sustainability. The Department is asking the public to report any sea cucumber removal.