China’ Interest in the Sri Lankan Sea Cucumber Industry: Has China found the Next Super Drug to Boost Athlete Performance?

In a 2021 collaborative research paper published by the College of Biosystems Engineering and Food Science, Zhejiang University, China Ningbo Research Institute, Zhejiang University and the College of Traditional Chinese Medicine, Yunnan University of Chinese Medicine, the authors claim that according to an experiment conducted, sea cucumbers have the capability of boosting exercise performance and has anti-fatigue effects. It is known for improving ‘exhaustive swimming time, increasing fore limb grip strength, reducing metabolite accumulation, relieving muscle injury, enhancing muscle glycogen and energy metabolism.’ Other reports also suggest that sea cucumbers are highly used in the Traditional Chinese Medicines (TCM) that claim to cure impotence, constipation, frequent urination, joint pain and increasing longevity.

Sea cucumbers are a barrel-shaped Holothuroidea that are a part of a larger animal group called Echinoderms that also include starfish and sea urchins. These creatures survives in the ocean, inhabiting either the shallow or the deep end. The species is not only used in the production of TCM but is also considered a delicacy in China. It is of high demand in the international market with China being one of the major buyers, making it one of the most expensive sea food items sold globally.

There are already plenty of pre-existing controversies around the TCM. From animal cruelty to excessive side effects, while the Chinese establishment has been trying to push the use of TCM both internally and globally, the horrific stories around TCM usage going wrong never stop to amaze. Despite widespread global criticism against the Chinese government on not taking biodiversity conservation seriously, the country continues to shamelessly import and consume trafficked animals. Needless to mention, the global illegal trafficking in endangered and vulnerable animals continues to flourish largely on account of the Chinese involvement is purchase of exotic species.

Recently, there has been news of the Chinese investing in the sea cucumber farms in Sri Lanka, to facilitate the export of the species from Sri Lanka to China. The Chinese joint venture company, Gui Lan (Pvt) Ltd had already established an artificial breeding production facility (hatchery) in Jaffna’s coastal village of Ariyalai as far back as 2016 to provide juvenile cucumber stock to support further production. While the climate in Sri Lanka is quite suitable for sea cucumber production, there can be catastrophic consequences for the local marine ecology if large-scale production is undertaken.  There have been reports of protests by the local farmers saying that these aquaculture projects is likely to have an adverse impact on their livelihood, the local marine ecology and the land.

In 2021 alone, Sri Lanka exported about 336 tons of sea cucumbers with China being the biggest importer. The Sri Lankan government is undoubtedly willing to give into the Chinese pressure as currently it would do anything to stabilize its battered economy. The Sri Lankan government is therefore welcoming all the Chinese investment in the production of sea cucumber with open arms. In June of 2022, the Cabinet approved a proposal for a large-scale commercial sea cucumber project spanning across 5000 acres in Jaffna, Mannar, Kilinochchi and Batticaloa districts in the northern and eastern regions of Sri Lanka. In some of these places, the designated areas for sea cucumber farming has been fenced off, restrictingthe access to some of the adjoining land and adversely affecting the only means of livelihood of the local fishermen. The National Aquaculture Development Authority under the Ministry of Fisheries in the leading authority on the issue, facilitating such an exploitation to take place. Pungudutivu, the region where the farm is being proposed is very close to Nainativu, one of the three islands which have been cleared for the Chinese renewable energy projects. The Chinese, in this fashion, use their influence to further expand their interests at the cost of other countries.

Similar reports have also been heard with respect to the East African coast countries. Illegal trade in sea cucumber is threatening the livelihood of the local population in the area and doing irrevocable damage to the sensitive marine ecosystem. In some of these coastal areas such as Kwale, Pemba and Zanzibar, the local population has relied on the sea cucumber consumption and trade for generations. The lopsided, high demand coming from China and the high prices being paid for obtaining it is encouraging international smugglers to get involved who use illegal methods to do sea cucumber harvesting and are ruining the means of livelihood of local fishermen. This is also fast depleting the sea cucumber population in coastal regions of a number of countries including Kenya and Tanzania.

It is worth asking why the Chinese insist so vehemently on acquiring sea cucumbers, with so much money being pumped in other countries for their production. Are they living in the hope of becoming a superior race with ultra-human capabilities of longer lifespans and young and tireless bodies? The country, quite possibly also has aspirations to produce the best high-performing athletes in the world, merely to prove its superiority. The world knows that there are no bounds to Chinese ambitions but in their pursuit towards becoming the most powerful in the world is likely to cause tremendous harm to other vulnerable countries such as Sri Lanka.


China, Sri Lanka, India