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Time to Love the Unloved

#LoveTheUnloved Photo Contest Launches Ahead of CITES CoP18

image of sea cucumber by Andrew Harrison
Project AWARE News

Valentine’s Day may be one of the most polarizing commemorative days of the year. For every person enjoying public and private shows of affection, there are likely to be equal numbers actively trying to avoid any mentions of “the L word”.

At Project AWARE, when it comes to marine species, we firmly believe that even what are seemingly unlovable creatures deserve a bit of affection every now and again. As you know, Project AWARE and our partners and supporters have been showing the love for threatened species of sharks and rays for many years, even if fishery managers haven’t been that way inclined. We’ve pushed governments to introduce catch limits for sharks in the Atlantic and Mediterranean, helped incorporate threatened shark and rays onto the CMS international conservation agreement, and advocated for sustainable trade in shark and ray products via the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), something we’re going to keep up at the 18th tri-annual meeting (CoP18) in May this year where the world’s fastest sharks, the makos, alongside guitarfish and wedgefish (prized for their high-quality fins), are up for consideration for inclusion in CITES Appendices.

While there is likely to be a lot of interest around highly charismatic and, let’s face it, photogenic species, often, some of the less cuddly and media-friendly species often get overlooked, left behind and, well, unloved.

image of sea cucumber4 Ways You Can Help Us #LoveTheUnloved

This year, as well as leading the charge to get sharks listed, we will be supporting the listing of three species of holothurians at CITES CoP18.
"What on earth are holothurians?” I hear you hypothetically ask (at least for the benefit of this blog post). Anyone who has been in the ocean in tropical or temperate waters will likely have seen a holothurian, more commonly known as a sea cucumber.

image of sea cucumber pooThese sedentary creatures are related to starfish and sea urchins, and live a slow-paced life on the seafloor, feeding on algae, bacteria and decaying organic matter, sea cucumbers are one of the ocean’s great recyclers. Also, while they may seem like an unassuming, even dull part of the ecosystem, there is evidence that they could play one of the most important roles in fighting one of the biggest threats we face today, namely climate change. Researchers at the University of Sydney have discovered that when a sea cucumber digests its food, the processes that go on inside its gut can reduce the acidity of the areas where they poo, helping counter the effects of rising sea temperatures, where the ocean becomes more acid when it absorbs more carbon dioxide.

image of sea cucumber dishUnfortunately for sea cucumbers, they are loved in a way that is decimating their numbers. Some species of sea cucumbers, known as bêche-de-mer, are a highly prized delicacy in many parts of the world. While we reckon you may not have known much about sea cucumbers, we bet you didn’t know that they are some of the highest valued seafood on the planet, setting you back almost $3,000 per kilo of dried sea cucumber. This high value has a lot of knock-on effects, with their value increasing, they get fished more extensively, and as they disappear from shallower waters, divers go deeper for longer to catch them to keep up with demand, often suffering diving related illnesses. Sea cucumbers themselves are not the most romantic creatures on the planet. Many species reproduce by releasing sperm and eggs into the water column, letting currents mix them. To do this effectively, there need to be high numbers in dense patches.

image of sea cucumberAs sedentary creatures, they are particularly susceptible to increased marine debris. Every Dive Against Debris® submission we get will help us get a better understanding of the effects on marine habitats and also play an active part in loving the unloved. Without sea cucumbers, we face increased threats to coral reefs, seagrass beds, and lagoon areas, lose a natural weapon to fight climate change and will have a knock-on effect for their more glamorous neighbors like sharks.

Photos by Andrew Harrison and Wikimedia Commons Images

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