B2 High-Intermediate US 501 Folder Collection
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Narrator: Cucumbers usually cost under $3 a kilo.
But sea cucumbers can set you back over $3,000 a kilo.
In fact, they're so valuable
people will risk their lives to get ahold of one.
They might not look it, but sea cucumbers
are pretty special creatures.
Just ask this guy, Steven Purcell,
one of the world's foremost experts on sea cucumbers.
Purcell: They're quite strange animals.
They don't have any limbs, they don't have any eyes.
They have a mouth and they have an anus
and a whole bunch of organs in between.
Narrator: These otherworldly animals
have been prized as a delicacy in Asia for centuries,
where the wealthiest class would eat the animals
as a nutritious high-protein treat.
But it wasn't until the 1980s that demand exploded.
A growing middle class in China
meant more people could afford the luxury.
Today, they're typically dried and packaged in ornate boxes,
then given as gifts and served on special occasions.
So, the fancier and more unusual-looking, the better.
And more expensive.
It turns out.
Purcell: The spikier the animals, the higher the price.
Narrator: And of the 1,250 different species
of sea cucumber in the world,
the Japanese sea cucumber takes the cake.
Purcell: Imagine some sort of mystical dragon
slug with all these sort of spikes coming out of it.
Narrator: At up to $3,500 a kilo,
it's the most expensive sea cucumber on the market.
Compared to other varieties, like the Golden Sandfish,
Dragonfish, and Curry Fish.
And even if you order a common species on Amazon,
you could still pay over $170 for a plate.
Besides presentation, cucumber connoisseurs also value
thick, chewy bodies, and to a lesser extent, taste.
But the experience of eating them
is only part of their appeal.
Turns out sea cucumbers contain high levels
of a chemical called fucosylated glycosaminoglycan
in their skin, which people across Asia have been using
to treat joint problems like arthritis for centuries,
and more recently in Europe, where people are using it
to treat certain cancers and to reduce blood clots.
The sea cucumber craze now comes from all sides.
You have the original Asian delicacy demand
that started in the 1980s, and the new interest
from Western pharmaceutical companies.
In response, nations have clamored
to harvest their local species.
From Morocco to the United States to Papua New Guinea,
everyone wants in on the sea cucumber trade.
Purcell: It's just spread like a contagion
from one country to another.
Narrator: For example, from 1996 to 2011,
the number of countries exporting sea cucumbers
exploded from 35 to 83.
But unfortunately, sea cucumbers couldn't handle the strain.
In Yucatan, Mexico, for example,
divers saw a 95% drop in their harvest
just between 2012 and 2014,
and that's a problem for everyone.
For one, because the more sea cucumbers are harvested,
the rarer and more expensive they become.
Average prices rose almost 17% worldwide
between 2011 and 2016. And the rarer these animals get,
the deeper divers are swimming to find them.
That's when fishing gets dangerous.
Purcell: Some countries, they're doing that
without either a lot of training.
In some of the tropical countries,
you're getting a lot of people either
becoming paralyzed through decompression sickness.
Narrator: So far, at least 40 Yucatan divers
have died trying to harvest sea cucumbers.
And as demand continues to increase,
the problem is only getting worse.
Of the 70 or more species of exploited sea cucumbers,
7 are now classified as endangered,
all through exploitation, forcing
numerous fisheries worldwide to shut down
and damaging local economies in the process.
So, why not farm sea cucumbers
and leave the wild ones alone?
Well, it's easier said than done,
since many larvae die before reaching maturity,
and those that do survive take two to six years
to grow to a marketable size.
That said, aquaculture for a few varieties
has started to take off.
Like with that fancy Japanese sea cucumber.
Purcell: There's now aquaculture in China in the billions.
Narrator: Hopefully more species will be farmed
instead of fished in the future,
if not to protect local economies
and help develop potentially life-saving drugs,
then at least to preserve a fascinatingly bizarre animal.
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Why Sea Cucumbers Are So Expensive | So Expensive

501 Folder Collection
Winnie Liao published on January 15, 2019
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