Two months after they postponed a decision to regulate the harvest of one of Florida's ugliest sea creatures, state wildlife commissioners voted Wednesday to limit how many sea cucumbers can be collected.
However, the decision was criticized by the owner of the only sea cucumber processing plant on the East Coast of the United States, who said it would force him to shut down.
"It's hard for me to accept being put out of business by a rule or regulation that hasn't been fully researched," said Eric Lee of the Florida Sea Cucumber Corp. in Ramrod Key, scheduled to be featured next month on Bizarre Foods, Andrew Zimmern's Travel Channel program.
The sea cucumber, a long and lumpy invertebrate, is extremely popular in Asia, particularly China, where it is used to treat joint pain and — no doubt more significantly — as an aphrodisiac. The demand is so heavy that worldwide 20 percent of sea cucumber fisheries have been fully depleted.
For decades, divers in the Florida Keys who strapped on scuba gear to collect saltwater fish for aquariums have also scooped up the occasional sea cucumber. In 2012, they collected about 14,000 of them.
Then, last year, Florida's sea cucumber catch more than tripled, hitting 54,000, according to Melissa Recks of the state Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.
Except for requiring a license to collect live sea creatures, Florida had no regulations governing the collection of sea cucumbers. That sudden jump in the harvest alarmed the Florida Marine Life Association, which represents the people who collect saltwater fish. So many sea cucumbers were harvested in Costa Rica, Ecuador, India and eight other countries that the population collapsed.
So the Florida Marine Life Association asked state wildlife officials to set a limit of 200 sea cucumbers per boat, per trip. Wildlife commissioners initially approved that limit in February.
But they backpedaled and delayed a vote until April to try to work out a compromise with Lee, who was seeking a limit of 500 to 800 sea cucumbers per boat, per trip. Lee said he met with the staff, but they failed to work out a deal both sides could accept.
Recks presented two options Wednesday: the original proposal of limiting each boat to 200 sea cucumbers per trip; or setting a limit of 500 sea cucumbers per boat, per trip until the harvest hits 150,000 for the year, at which point the limit would be cut to 50 per boat.
With no discussion, the wildlife commissioners voted to impose the industry-backed limit of 200 per boat, per trip, much to Lee's chagrin.
"It effectively, under current market conditions, puts us out of business," he said afterward.
Craig Pittman can be reached at [email protected] or follow @CraigTimes on Twitter.