For Immediate Release, June 29, 2021

Contact:

Sarah Uhlemann, (206) 327-2344, suhlemann@biologicaldiversity.org

Lawsuit Launched Over Federal Protections for Black Teatfish Sea Cucumbers

Shallow-Water Species Faces Extinction From Overfishing, Wildlife Trade

WASHINGTON— The Center for Biological Diversity sent a notice of intent to sue the federal government today for failing to act on a petition to protect black teatfish sea cucumbers under the Endangered Species Act. Overfishing to supply the luxury seafood trade has caused rapid population declines for this sea cucumber species that is found in shallow waters outside the United States.

The Center petitioned the National Marine Fisheries Service in May 2020 to consider listing black teatfish, but officials failed to respond by the 12-month statutory deadline. Today’s letter gives the Fisheries Service 60 days to act before a lawsuit is filed.

“We’re asking the Biden administration to take a stand for sea cucumbers, as a critical but beleaguered part of coral reef ecosystems, before these amazing creatures are eaten to extinction,” said Sarah Uhlemann, international program director with the Center. “By protecting black teatfish under U.S. law, we can ensure we don’t contribute to their disturbingly rapid decline.”

Black teatfish live among tropical reefs and seagrass in the Indian Ocean along the east coast of Africa, the west coast of India, and the islands in between. They are a luxury food item in Asian markets, sold as the dried and then-reconstituted delicacy bêche-de-mer or trepang. The United States also imports thousands of sea cucumbers a year, with volume of sea cucumbers imports by weight increasing by 36 times over a decade.

International trade is the biggest threat to teatfish, and soaring demand has caused populations and fisheries to crash in recent years.

In 2019 nations around the world approved global trade restrictions for black teatfish and two other sea cucumbers under the Convention of International Trade of Endangered Species (CITES). While important, those protections allow for continued harvest and trade of teatfish, subject to permitting and monitoring requirements.

Listing the black teatfish as endangered under U.S. law would strengthen those protections by strictly banning all imports and sale within the United States. That’s necessary to ensure the U.S. doesn’t contribute to the sea cucumbers’ further decline.

The Center’s petition cited studies showing that the black teatfish’s population has declined 60% to 70% across 80% of its range. Surveys have found exclusively adult black teatfish and no juveniles, elevating the risk of extinction.

Teatfish are particularly vulnerable to overfishing because they are large, sedentary and occur in shallow waters — making them easy to capture. Teatfish also mature late and require high densities to reproduce, which adds to their susceptibility to population declines.

Climate change and pollution further threaten the black teatfish by degrading the coral reef and seagrass habitats where the species lives.

The Center for Biological Diversity is a national, nonprofit conservation organization with more than 1.7 million members and online activists dedicated to the protection of endangered species and wild places.