The report, ‘Illegal Trade of Marine Species in India: 2015-2021’, aims at providing a comprehensive overview of the illegal marine wildlife trade in India from 2015 to 2021. Publicly available online newspaper articles were collected and analysed by the Counter Wildlife Trafficking team of WCS-India. The report provides insights into the nature, volume and extent of illegal marine trade across the country. In addition, incidents involving illegal sea cucumber trade were further analysed using ‘crime scripts’, to understand how these smuggling networks operate.
A total of 187 incidents of illegal trade of marine species were collated between January 2015 and December 2021. Data collected for seven groups of marine wildlife species were analysed within the report, which includes sea cucumber, coral, syngnathidae (seahorse and pipefish), elasmobranch (shark and ray), seashell, sea fan and sea turtle.
Dr Vardhan Patankar, Marine Biologist: "Illegal marine trade, although common, it often goes unreported due to the nature of the trade and as a result, civil society, policymakers and local communities are left in the dark about the instances and scale of the problem, making it hard to investigate, report and analyse. Reporting and synthesising information on the trade would go a long way in conserving top traded and vulnerable marine species".
Species-wise frequency of illegal marine wildlife trade incidents recorded between 2015 - 2021
Among the marine wildlife documented in this assessment, sea cucumber was the most frequently recorded species group (122 incidents), followed by sea fan (20 incidents), seahorse and pipefish (18 incidents) and seashell (18 incidents). India is an identified hotspot for illegal smuggling and trade in sea cucumbers, to supply demand for bêche-de-mer from southeast Asian countries. Sea fans, on the other hand, are sold domestically within Indian markets, guided by local superstitious beliefs. The illegal trade in sea fans (known in the domestic market as ‘Indra-jaal’ or ‘Maha-jaal’) was not only restricted to coastal areas, but also recorded in states such as Assam, Uttar Pradesh, Rajasthan and central Karnataka. We also recorded the online trade of sea fans. Trade in a variety of protected seashell species are recorded through seizures in this assessment and were often traded along with other marine species such as corals and sea fans. Seashells are commonly sold in curio markets along the coastline, and have a demand in the ornamental industry, e.g., species like Trochus shell (Trochus niloticus) are prized for their lustre, used to extract mother-of-pearl and design artefacts, while windowpane oysters (Placuna placenta) are used as design for lamps, hair clips and other accessories.
Dr Aaron Savio Lobo, Senior Advisor Marine program at WCS-India: “When it comes to illegally traded marine wildlife, the largest volumes are harvested as incidental catch in unselective fisheries such as trawling and gillnetting. This includes the likes of seahorses, sharks, manta and devil rays. This is unlike most terrestrial traded wildlife species which are directly harvested. Countering marine wildlife trade thereby requires paradigm changes in fisheries management as whole to reduce their capture in the first place. “
Tamil Nadu recorded the highest number of seizures involving illegal marine wildlife (126 incidents), followed by Maharashtra (13 incidents), Lakshadweep (12 incidents) and Karnataka (eight incidents). Few of these incidents also contained information on the local, inter-state and international trade routes involving marine wildlife species. High number of seizure incidents from states may indicate important marine wildlife trade regions of interest, or could be the result of effective enforcement efforts to deter wildlife trafficking. Likewise, increased interest and reporting from media for certain states may also influence reported seizure numbers.
The commonly recorded countries where the marine wildlife consignment were intended for smuggling, were Sri Lanka, China, Malaysia, Hong Kong, and Singapore, among others. Due to varying levels of protection for marine species within and outside the country, marine wildlife contraband is transported to countries in close proximity to India and then further to international markets where sale or trade of such species is either permitted or regulated.
Spatial distribution of media-reported marine wildlife seizures recorded between 2015-2021
An unusual surge in the cases of ambergris seizures was recorded last year. Of the 38 incidents recorded from 2015-2021, 36 incidents were recorded in 2021. Ambergris is a waxy substance that originates as a secretion in the intestine of whales. Once excreted, it can be found floating on surface of ocean. Since trade in ambergris does not involve hunting, handling or removal of marine wildlife from its natural habitat, and due to the ambiguity concerning authenticity of the products in trade, ambergris incidents were excluded from the assessment of illegal marine wildlife trade.
In image: Pineapple sea cucumber (Thelenota ananas) Photo: Vardhan Patankar
ACTOR-BASED CRIME SCRIPT TO UNDERSTAND ILLEGAL TRADE OF SEA CUCUMBERS IN INDIA
To gain a better understanding of the illegal trade of sea cucumbers in India, we created a partial ‘Crime Script’, focusing on the stages involved in trafficking of these species. Crime scripting helps to generate specific and nuanced intervention measures at each identified stage, in order to prevent crime.
One hundred and twenty-two incidents were analysed, out of which sixty-seven incidents reported secondary information on the seizure. Secondary information, wherever available was further identified as specific steps carried out by the actors involved in sea cucumber poaching and illegal trade, and were divided into stages namely: Preparation stage, Pre-activity stage, Activity stage and Post-activity stage. In addition, we also collected published and grey literature on Indian sea cucumber fisheries and their sale in markets around the world. The step-wise summary of this trade has been illustrated as a comic visual within the report.
The report attempts to provide a baseline of illegal marine trade in India. It also aims to reiterate the importance of enforcement agencies to counter marine wildlife trade. Marine wildlife cover a wide array of species spanning across taxonomic groups, with varying levels of usage, threats and protection status. Hence, interventions to reduce marine wildlife crime warrants effective policy measures, support from coastal communities, and increased awareness on the importance of marine wildlife and its habitats. The report is publicly available, and will be circulated among enforcement agencies, conservation partners, and media agencies.
Nirmal U Kulkarni, Senior Consultant CWT program at WCS-India: “The illegal wildlife marine trade has spiked to unprecedented proportions in the past decade with indications of organised networks now active on India’s Western and Eastern coasts. While enforcement agencies have stepped in equal measure to curb this illegal trade in endangered marine species, community outreach programs will play a critical role in providing long-term solutions to targeted harvests of illegal marine wildlife including sea, fans, sharks, sea cucumbers, various species of shells, etc. This report is a step in the right direction to provide information that can be effectively used by policymakers as well as marine conservationists to tackle this challenge of trade in protected species.”
Read the full report here: https://doi.org/10.19121/2022.Report.43707