Who needs drugs, gambling, and prostitution when there’s an ocean full of slimy black gold for the taking?

It’s an increasingly common scene out on the Sea of Japan: in the middle of the night, Coast Guard patrols come across a suspicious ship that appears to be fishing, but whenever they approach the boat for questioning, the high-performance vessels take off at speeds they simply cannot match.

These ships are believed to belong to the yakuza, out on the sea in search of sea cucumbers again. This growing problem has caused the national government to begin to take measures to restrict the trade of these animals.

Currently, the penalty for poaching sea cucumbers is a maximum six months in prison and a 10,000 yen (US$91) fine. While that might be enough to keep away lone fishermen looking for some of that big-time sea cucumber money, it’s hardly enough to make a yakuza member flinch.

Last year, a Yamaguchi-gumi boss was sued for possession of 60 tons of sea cucumbers and ordered to pay 100 million yen ($912,000). More recently, five Yamaguchi-gumi members were arrested with 450 kilograms (1,000 pounds) of the creatures. Even still, such arrests are rare as the gangsters use ships faster than the authorities and even if caught, can simply dump the evidence back in the ocean.

According to a source close to organized crime who spoke with Shukan Bunshun, sea cucumbers are a major source of revenue for the yakuza right up there with amphetamine trafficking. This may come as a surprise to Japanese people who use sea cucumbers for little more than a pickled side dish.

▼ That, and there was a bit of a sea cucumber key-chain fad a few years ago

Actually, the bulk of sea cucumber profits comes from abroad. It is said to be a 20 billion yen ($182M) marine export behind only pearls and scallops in terms of revenue. This is thanks to a recent spike in demand in China causing prices to skyrocket to tens of thousands of yen per kilogram (roughly hundreds of dollars per pound) for dried sea cucumber.

The deal is made sweeter by the fact that sea cucumbers aren’t regulated like other forms of seafood. For example, bluefin tuna cannot be exported unless its source is verified by a regional fishing industry association. Now, in response to the current poaching sprees, the government is considering similar rules for sea cucumbers as well.

Until then, these noble echinoderms must continue to endure this reckless overfishing of the mob. They aren’t the only victims either. Perhaps some sympathy should be given to those yakuza members doing all the grunt-work too.

They probably joined up with dreams of hanging out in seedy bars and getting into street fights, only to end up scooting around the ocean in the dark, looking for living sausages at the bottom of the ocean, and thinking, “I learned Photoshop for this?!”

Source: Shukan Bunshun
Top image: Wikipedia/harum.koh