For centuries, Chinese people have sought sea cucumbers as an ingredient in traditional medicine or as a high-status food.In recent decades, skyrocketing demand and prices have led to a marine gold rush for sea cucumbers around the world.In Madagascar, as elsewhere, wild sea cucumbers are declining.Fishers are venturing further out to sea and into deeper waters to pursue them illegally using unsafe SCUBA gear. NOSY BE, Madagascar — Far offshore from the luxury resorts and seafood restaurants in the resort town of Nosy Be in northwestern Madagascar, three local fishermen are pulling on their SCUBA diving gear in the sweltering midmorning sun. Hunched over my video camera, I capture them making their final preparations, as part of a documentary I am making on fishers in Madagascar. “Tahiry,” the eldest and most experienced, repeatedly bangs his regulator mouthpiece against the side of the narrow wooden dugout canoe. His efforts fail to stop the angry hiss of air escaping from his decrepit-looking dive gear. He needs that precious air to sustain him on the repeated dives he will carry out today. Tahiry asked that I use a pseudonym because he is about to knowingly break fisheries law, not to mention risk his life by diving far deeper and for far longer than safe diving protocol allows. His target is one of the four “marine treasures” of Cantonese cuisine: the sea cucumber. If he and his dive buddies are successful, they’ll earn far more today than their hospitality-working peers back on shore. Risky though the work may be, the payout makes it an enticing proposition in one of the world’s poorest countries. Fishers are risking their lives by diving deeper and further offshore to find the last remaining populations of sea cucumbers. Image by Michel Strogoff / © Chris Scarffe Film and Photography. Sea cucumbers are echinoderms, a group of marine animals that includes sea stars and sea urchins, and live throughout the world’s oceans. There are some 1,250 different species that range in size from approximately 1.9 centimeters (three-quarters of an inch) to more than 1.8 meters (6 feet). Many, as their name suggests, resemble the oblong form of a bloated cucumber. For centuries, Chinese people have pursued them as an ingredient in traditional medicine or as a high-status food, typically eaten in soups and stews. However, in recent decades the enormous economic transformation in China has caused demand and prices to skyrocket, with the most sought-after species now retailing for up to $3,500 per kilogram. This has led to a marine gold rush, with fishers all over the world racing to meet escalating demand. A 2015 study showed that from 1996 to 2011, the number of exporting countries rose from 35 to 83. Poor management and unsustainable harvesting of the roughly 70 commercially valuable species has caused a predictable pattern of boom and bust in many fisheries: a 2011 paper reported that 72% of the world’s sea cucumber fisheries were already fully exploited, overexploited or depleted. Later that day, Tahiry carries two heavily rusted dive tanks, still damp from the morning’s diving, off his boat and places them next to a sputtering dive compressor on the beach and a tub containing his meager catch. Tahiry’s athletic physique belies his 53 years. He has been SCUBA diving for sea cucumbers since 1999, six years after the Malagasy government banned the practice in an ill-fated attempt to better manage the fishery. “Sea cucumbers are decreasing,” he tells me with a rueful smile. “When I started diving for sea cucumbers I would be able to almost fill up a boat like this one,” he says, pointing to his beached canoe. “In the shallows we would collect 300 or more good-sized sea cucumbers in a day, but now we are lucky if we can collect just 10 or 20.” The true extent of this decline in Madagascar is hard to quantify, as there are no reliable national stock assessment figures. Trade figures provide some detail. According to Madagascar’s former Ministry of Fishery Resources, national production progressively dropped from 1,800 tons in 1995 to 232 tons in 2014, a decrease of 87%. In a country where three-quarters of the people live on less than $1.90 a day, the collapse of this lucrative fishery has enormous implications, both for marine ecosystems, where sea cucumbers play an important role, and for fishing communities. A fisher in northwest Madagascar prepares to return to shore with a “curryfish” (Stichpus herrmanni) sea cucumber. Image by Michel Strogoff / © Chris Scarffe Film and Photography. Most Malagasy sea cucumber fishers who dive on SCUBA have no formal training and little knowledge of the physics that dictates how long they can spend underwater at various depths. When they exceed these limits, divers face a host of risks, including paralysis and death. “If you are diving to 40, 50 or even in excess of 60 meters” — nearly 200 feet — “and are staying down on the bottom for as long as they are doing using such poorly maintained gear, it’s a disaster waiting to happen!” says Jacques Viera, a highly qualified trainer of dive instructors in Nosy Be and one of the few people in Madagascar licensed to treat diving accidents in a hyperbaric chamber. “Even if you dive at only 40 meters [130 feet] it’s still extremely risky. According to the dive tables you only have eight minutes to complete your dive at this depth. But these divers are spending 20 or more minutes at this depth. That’s more than double what is considered safe.” When I ask Tahiry why he takes these risks, his response is pragmatic. “It’s true, bottle [SCUBA] diving for sea cucumbers is extremely risky. I have seen so many people die from it or get badly injured. We take these risks because we can make good money from it. In life sometimes you win and sometimes you lose. Many people here die from non-dive related illness or accidents anyway, so why not take a risk and look after your family?” Tahiry beckons for to me to follow him as he carries the day’s catch back to his large brick house. Here he will process the sea cucumbers before selling to local buyers. While his house is by no means ostentatious, it stands out from its smaller neighbors made from natural materials. It’s a testament to the relative financial reward of diving for sea cucumbers over the traditional forms of fishing practiced by other community members.