Saltwater crocodiles are the largest reptiles on the planet.
© ABC News: Iskhandar Razak, file photo
Saltwater crocodiles are the largest reptiles on the planet.
Two men have been killed in separate crocodile attacks in Solomon Islands while diving for sea cucumbers at night.

The deaths last week of a 36-year-old man and another man in his 20s came less than a month after the country lifted a ban on harvesting the marine animal, also called beche-de-mer, in order to boost the economy after COVID-19.

Royal Solomon Islands Police Force Provincial Assistant Commissioner Joseph Maneluga said he was concerned about the attacks, which occurred just a day apart.

"I think the people are going crazy because of the reopening of the beche-de-mer," he said.

"And the population of crocodiles is really increasing, and so that is the threat that we have."

Police enlisted assistance from Explosive Ordnance Device Unit divers, who are usually tasked to dispose of old World War II shells, to recover the bodies from the crocodile-infested waters.

"It's quite risky because there are crocodiles still around those places and so it's not safe for our divers to go back to the same location to search for those people," Assistant Commissioner Maneluga said.

Despite the threat of crocodile attacks, diver and marine biologist Stephen Attallifo Mosese said locals were not afraid to get in the water to harvest sea cucumbers.

"I was amazed because Suava Bay in Malaita is a hotspot for crocodiles and ever since the reopening, you can see people diving out [at] the mangroves at night and you know that this is [the] time crocodiles are the most active," Mr Mosese said.

Asian market fuels sea cucumber craze

Sea cucumbers are soft and squishy and, like their namesake, have a tube-like body.

They are nocturnal and spend their lives on the dark depths of the sea floor feeding on detritus in the sediment.

They play a vital role in the ocean's ecosystem by acting like an underwater vacuum cleaner, eating up waste, which helps balance ocean acidification.

China and South-East Asian countries consider them a culinary delicacy and dried sea cucumbers are sometimes used in traditional medicines.

Sea cucumbers can fetch a hefty price in the Pacific depending on their size and species.

Sea cucumbers can fetch a hefty price in the Pacific depending on their size and species.
A kilogram can fetch up to $170 in the Solomon Islands.

Their phallic shape has earned them a suggestive nickname and they are often mistaken for an aphrodisiac.

The demand for Pacific sea cucumbers is enormous, and depending on the species the export of this delicacy can make local divers big dollars.

"It offers good, good money," diver Mr Mosese said.

"Almost every business house in Solomon Islands, especially the Chinese, are interested in paying for beche-de-mer and the shops put out big posters saying 'We buy sea cucumber'."

There are also reports that Asian buyers are supplying local fishers with fuel, torches and batteries, leading more to go diving for the creatures.

The Pacific sea cucumber trade has gone through cycles of boom and bust as traders exploit areas for stock.

Stacy Jupiter, the Melanesia regional director for the Wildlife Conservation Society, said over-harvesting led to a ban on sea cucumber harvesting in Solomon Islands in 2019.

"They basically exploit almost all of the sea cucumbers that can be harvested in a region until the populations in effect collapse," she said.

"In some places over time the populations can recover, but in some places they don't."

Lifting of ban leads to harvesting rush

The Solomon Islands government lifted the sea cucumber ban on September 1, citing economic hardships faced by the country due to the pandemic.

The ban will be put back in place in September next year.

Though the government has size limits to protect sea cucumber populations, a lack of resources means there is little enforcement of the policy.

Some local fishers have also complained they have been underpaid for their catch.

Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare said people from neighbouring Papua New Guinea, which is battling a COVID-19 outbreak, had been crossing the border to harvest beche-de-mer, putting Solomon Islanders at risk of infection.

"Several people from Bougainville [in PNG] have crossed the border to harvest bech-de-mer on our side of the border and they have interacted with several people," he said.

Crocodile cull considered

While divers are celebrating the removal of the sea cucumber ban, another wildlife ban has made their jobs more dangerous.

Thirty years ago, Solomon Islands decided to ban the export of crocodiles, leading to a population boom across the country.

To help protect divers and others who live near rivers, some people are calling for a crocodile cull to reduce numbers.

But Dr Jupiter said killing crocodiles was not the answer.

She said if the sea cucumber and crocodile populations were well managed, people could safely earn a living without putting their lives at risk.

"It's all about trying to put those sustainable management practices in place so that people have more money, that the ecological system is still functioning and that people aren't placing themselves in danger of getting attacked or eaten by crocodiles," Dr Jupiter said.

She has backed calls from authorities who are urging people to take precautionary measures whilst diving.

That includes knowing the dive location, diving during the day with a group of people, having someone look out for dangers, and avoiding mangroves, swamps and seagrass where crocodiles like to hang out.

"These are the ways to raise awareness and to stop people from just taking every single one because they look at them like money sitting on the reef," she said.