“The products were undervalued because fisheries officers who should be doing their work were instead helping the exporters to defraud the country.” – Solomon Islands Customs Official Quote in Solomon Star News
An article published Monday in the Solomon Star News alleged a number of people, including “several ministers of the crown, government officials and police” participated in a conspiracy between fisheries officials and bêche-de-mer exporters in the Solomon Islands.
Bêche-de-mer, commonly called sea cucumbers in the English-speaking world, are echinoderms from the class Holothuroidea, and they are a highly valued food item in some Asia cuisines. These animals provide an essential ecosystem function by cleaning the sand of detritus. I have reported on the bêche-de-mer fishery previously from places like Solomon Islands, Indonesia and Papua New Guinea. I have seen firsthand how a Chinese-driven black market has resulted in overfishing. In some areas, stock assessments have led governments to shut down the fishery all together, but illegal fishing by local fishers in developing island nations remains rampant.
Why? A pound of bêche-de-mer may sell for as much as $300 in China.
The case in Solomon Islands reported Monday in the Solomon Star News revolves primarily around six containers of bêche-de-mer shipped from Solomon Islands last week. The contents of the containers was, according to the article, severely under-valued resulting in less revenue for the Government. The article claims the export of the shipment should have earned the Government more than $10 million in export tax, but only $546,801.90 in export duty was paid.
Why did customs officials (who have subsequently expressed concerns about the shipment) not do anything before the shipment left the country? As one customs official told the Solomon Star News, “We operate at the end of the line. Any documents our fisheries officials signed and forwarded to us will be accepted and taken. After all, they are our government officers and we trust and believe they are doing their job honesty.”
While such a response by a customs official may sound strange to an individual in the developed world where actual checks and balances rather than simple “trust” are perceived to be a critical component of trade, in developing island nations like Solomon Islands, such an attitude is too often business-as-usual.
While this specific case remains to be investigated, overall, the level of corruption in government in developing nations like Solomon Islands can have dire consequences on fisheries. These deleterious impacts may ultimately only be mitigated in the short-term by a deeper level of awareness on the part of consumers in market countries. If consumers of fisheries products are able to understand the real impact of their consumption, they will then have the opportunity to use their purchasing power to encourage sustainability.