Human consumption of several species of sea cucumbers in the Philippines could soon drive them extinction, according to Cesario R. Pagdilao, deputy executive director of the Philippine Council for Aquatic Marine Research and Development.

There are more than 1,200 known species of sea cucumbers (in the class Holothuroidea) around the world. Of the 100 species found in the Philippines, 25 to 30 are commercially harvested. More than 1,100 metric tons of sea cucumbers were collected in the Philippines 2006, according to Pagdilao, making them the country's eighth-largest fishery export.

Sea cucumbers, soft-bodied relatives of starfish and sea urchins, fetch up to $150 per dried kilogram (about $68 a pound) in China, where they are valued as a delicacy and as a health food, purported to cure ailments such as arthritis and even cancer.

Of particular value are the species Holothuria scabra and Holothuria versicolor, which bring in the highest prices. Some other types are worth less, because they are harder to ship, something the Philippine fishing industry is reportedly trying to solve with better preservation methods.

According to Pagdilao, high prices entice the country's poor to harvest sea cucumbers (a task usually done by hand), and "the lack of fishery and trade management" results in overharvest of many sea cucumber species.

In 2002, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) recognized that many sea cucumber species were at risk, but also that too little information existed to make many conservation efforts possible. CITES, a UN convention with more than 150 national signatories, recommended that its member nations implement management plans and enforce laws to prevent illegal harvesting, while also studying sea cucumber species and sharing information so international trade rules could eventually be established.

Image: Bêche-de-mer, a Chinese delicacy made from sea cucumbers via Wikipedia