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Sea cucumber crime is a thing, and this is where it’s happening
A "seafood mafia" is plying the waters between India and Sri Lanka to satisfy China's appetite for an increasingly rare delicacy.
- Long a delicacy in China and East Asia, sea cucumbers are now also becoming a rarity worldwide.
- India has outlawed the trade, inaugurated a marine reserve, and put together a law enforcement task force.
- But the trade remains legal in Sri Lanka, which has become the hub for widespread "seafood laundering."
Adam's (or Rama's) Bridge between India (left) and Sri Lanka, as captured from the Space Shuttle Endeavour in 1994.Credit: NASA, public domain.
The string of limestone islands slung between India and Sri Lanka was once a bridge built by Rama to retrieve his wife held hostage on the island; or, it was crossed by Adam on his flight from Eden — depending on which epic you prefer.
To the north, the shallows of the Palk Bay eventually become the Bay of Bengal. To the south, the Gulf of Mannar is the antechamber of the Indian Ocean. Formerly fertile fishing grounds, both bodies of water are now hotbeds of a relatively recent kind of marine-based misdeed: sea cucumber crime.
Crimes against sea cucumbers
As this map indicates, the number of criminal incidents in both India and Sri Lanka involving sea cucumbers has increased from no more than eight in 2015 to no less than 58 in 2020. In other words: it's a crime spree!
While most cases are concentrated on either side of Rama's (or Adam's) Bridge, the most recent wave has also touched Lakshadweep, the cluster of small islands that constitutes one of the union territories of India to the west of its mainland (and on the left on this map).
Like their terrestrial namesakes, sea cucumbers are tubular creatures. But that's where the comparison ends. Sea cucumbers are animal, not vegetal. Some grow up to six feet long. And while you can get a land cucumber for under a dollar at the supermarket, a kilo of sea cucumbers will easily set you back hundreds, if not thousands, of dollars.
Also known as sea slugs or sea leeches, sea cucumbers are a family of about 1,450 different species worldwide and are cousins to sea stars, sand dollars, and other echinoderms. Eyeless and limbless, they do have a mouth and an anus, and these they put to good use: by recycling waste into nutrients, they excrete key ingredients (to the tune of five Eiffel Towers' worth per reef per year) for coral reefs and help slow the acidification of the oceans.
For centuries, sea cucumbers have also been a sought-after delicacy and used as a dubious medicinal ingredient in China and Southeast Asia. Sea cucumbers are eaten dried, fried, pickled, or raw; as an accompaniment to Chinese cabbage or shiitake mushrooms; spiced and mixed with meat or other seafood; and used in soups, stews, and stir-fries. In traditional medicine, they're believed to help against arthritis, impotence, cancer, and frequent urination. They're also used in oils, creams, tinctures, and cosmetics.
An exploding sea cucumber market
In the past, sea cucumbers were the preserve of the very rich, who presented each other with ornate boxes of the luxury product in dried form. However, the burgeoning of China's middle classes since the 1980s has led to an exponential increase in demand, with ripple effects all over the world.
In the 1980s, a kilo of sea cucumbers (or bêche-de-mer or trepang, if you're into the whole culinary nomenclature thing) would set you back about $70. Now, it's closer to $300 and up to $3,500 for the rarer species — for example the Japanese sea cucumber, whose spikes make it look like a dragon.
Since then, global populations of the most expensive species have dropped by as much as 60 percent. As the net gets emptier, it is cast wider. From 1996 to 2011, the number of countries exporting sea cucumbers rose from 35 to 83. But the sea cucumber populations simply can't handle that much strain. In the sea cucumber fields off Yucatan, for example, yields dropped by 95 percent from 2012 to 2014. And between 2000 and 2016, standing stocks of various sea cucumber species near the Egyptian Red Sea port of Abu Ghosoun fell by 87 percent due to overfishing.
The sea cucumber crime wave has increased, both in numbers and area, now also reaching Lakshadweep (in the west).Credit: Phelps Bondaroff/Katapult Magazin, reproduced with kind permission.
The seafood mafia
As sea cucumbers get rarer, they get more valuable, which in turn encourages more illegal fishing. The average global price went up by 17 percent from 2011 to 2016. That drives the competition for the remaining specimens to dangerous heights — or rather, depths. According to the Central Marine Fisheries Research Institute in Kochi (Kerala, India), the species dwelling in shallow waters have been depleted to such an extent that divers are now targeting those in deeper waters. Without proper gear and training, that is potentially deadly. And not just in Indian waters. Back in Yucatan, at least 40 divers have lost their lives harvesting sea cucumbers, most from decompression sickness.
The situation in the waters off India and Sri Lanka is complicated by both countries' different legal approaches to sea cucumber scarcity. In 2001, India banned the trade and export of sea cucumbers. As per Schedule 1 of the Wildlife Protection Act, they now enjoy the same level of protection as India's lions and tigers.
Meanwhile in Sri Lanka, which has seen its sea cucumber grounds to the south and east collapse and shrink to just the northern side of the island, fishing for sea cucumbers remains legal but is subject to licenses to try to prevent overexploitation.
Having a legal market for sea cucumbers right next to an illegal one offers the "seafood mafia" two lucrative courses of action. First, harvest the dwindling stock of sea cucumbers right from under the noses of the Sri Lankan divers and fishermen. Second, smuggle the illegally caught ones from India into Sri Lanka, where they can be sold as if they were caught legally — a form of "seafood laundering," if you will.
As the map shows, both countries are stepping up their efforts against sea cucumber crime. Moreover, in 2020, Lakshadweep inaugurated the Dr. K.K. Mohammed Koya Sea Cucumber Conservation Reserve. Centered on the Cheripanyi Reef, an uninhabited atoll, the 239-km2 (149-mi2) reserve is the first of its kind in the world.
The union territory also set up a Sea Cucumber Protection Task Force, which has seized considerable amounts of illegally harvested sea cucumbers, including a haul of 1,716 creatures weighing a total of 882 kg (almost a ton), which could have netted as much as 42.6 million rupees ($854,000) on the market.
Save the sea cucumbers!
While conservation efforts are commendable, the increasing scarcity and rising prices of sea cucumbers will continue to prove irresistible to the seafood mafia. There is some hope in aquaculture, with projects underway in China and elsewhere. However, only a small share of sea cucumber larvae make it into adulthood, a process that can last up to six years.
Sea cucumbers recently also have appeared on the radar of multinational pharmaceutical companies. It may yet turn out that some of their reputed medicinal qualities are more than just folk tales, and some chemicals they contain could help treat cancer and joint pain. It remains to be seen whether this additional source of attention will be a lifeline for the sea cucumbers or the kiss of death.
The world's first sea cucumber reserve in Lakshadweep, off India.Credit: Government of India, Union Territory of Lakshadweep, Department of Environment & Forest.
For more great maps, and to improve your German, check out Katapult Magazin (partially available in English).
Original data for the Katapult map from a paper by Dr. Teale Phelps Bondaroff, titled Sea cucumber crime in India and Sri Lanka during the period 2015–2020.
Strange Maps #1086
Got a strange map? Let me know at email@example.com.
A Harvard professor's study discovers the worst year to be alive.
- Harvard professor Michael McCormick argues the worst year to be alive was 536 AD.
- The year was terrible due to cataclysmic eruptions that blocked out the sun and the spread of the plague.
- 536 ushered in the coldest decade in thousands of years and started a century of economic devastation.
The past year has been nothing but the worst in the lives of many people around the globe. A rampaging pandemic, dangerous political instability, weather catastrophes, and a profound change in lifestyle that most have never experienced or imagined.
But was it the worst year ever?
Nope. Not even close. In the eyes of the historian and archaeologist Michael McCormick, the absolute "worst year to be alive" was 536.
Why was 536 so bad? You could certainly argue that 1918, the last year of World War I when the Spanish Flu killed up to 100 million people around the world, was a terrible year by all accounts. 1349 could also be considered on this morbid list as the year when the Black Death wiped out half of Europe, with up to 20 million dead from the plague. Most of the years of World War II could probably lay claim to the "worst year" title as well. But 536 was in a category of its own, argues the historian.
It all began with an eruption...
According to McCormick, Professor of Medieval History at Harvard University, 536 was the precursor year to one of the worst periods of human history. It featured a volcanic eruption early in the year that took place in Iceland, as established by a study of a Swiss glacier carried out by McCormick and the glaciologist Paul Mayewski from the Climate Change Institute of The University of Maine (UM) in Orono.
The ash spewed out by the volcano likely led to a fog that brought an 18-month-long stretch of daytime darkness across Europe, the Middle East, and portions of Asia. As wrote the Byzantine historian Procopius, "For the sun gave forth its light without brightness, like the moon, during the whole year." He also recounted that it looked like the sun was always in eclipse.
Cassiodorus, a Roman politician of that time, wrote that the sun had a "bluish" color, the moon had no luster, and "seasons seem to be all jumbled up together." What's even creepier, he described, "We marvel to see no shadows of our bodies at noon."
...that led to famine...
The dark days also brought a period of coldness, with summer temperatures falling by 1.5° C. to 2.5° C. This started the coldest decade in the past 2300 years, reports Science, leading to the devastation of crops and worldwide hunger.
...and the fall of an empire
In 541, the bubonic plague added considerably to the world's misery. Spreading from the Roman port of Pelusium in Egypt, the so-called Plague of Justinian caused the deaths of up to one half of the population of the eastern Roman Empire. This, in turn, sped up its eventual collapse, writes McCormick.
Between the environmental cataclysms, with massive volcanic eruptions also in 540 and 547, and the devastation brought on by the plague, Europe was in for an economic downturn for nearly all of the next century, until 640 when silver mining gave it a boost.
Was that the worst time in history?
Of course, the absolute worst time in history depends on who you were and where you lived.
Native Americans can easily point to 1520, when smallpox, brought over by the Spanish, killed millions of indigenous people. By 1600, up to 90 percent of the population of the Americas (about 55 million people) was wiped out by various European pathogens.
Like all things, the grisly title of "worst year ever" comes down to historical perspective.
Quantum theory has weird implications. Trying to explain them just makes things weirder.
- The weirdness of quantum theory flies in the face of what we experience in our everyday lives.
- Quantum weirdness quickly created a split in the physics community, each side championed by a giant: Albert Einstein and Niels Bohr.
- As two recent books espousing opposing views show, the debate still rages on nearly a century afterward. Each "resolution" comes with a high price tag.
Albert Einstein and Niels Bohr, two giants of 20th century science, espoused very different worldviews.
To Einstein, the world was ultimately rational. Things had to make sense. They should be quantifiable and expressible through a logical chain of cause-and-effect interactions, from what we experience in our everyday lives all the way to the depths of reality. To Bohr, we had no right to expect any such order or rationality. Nature, at its deepest level, need not follow any of our expectations of well-behaved determinism. Things could be weird and non-deterministic, so long as they became more like what we expect when we traveled from the world of atoms to our world of trees, frogs, and cars. Bohr divided the world into two realms, the familiar classical world, and the unfamiliar quantum world. They should be complementary to one another but with very different properties.
The two scientists spent decades arguing about the impact of quantum physics on the nature of reality. Each had groups of physicists as followers, all of them giants of their own. Einstein's group of quantum weirdness deniers included quantum physics pioneers Max Planck, Louis de Broglie, and Erwin Schrödinger, while Bohr's group had Werner Heisenberg (of uncertainty principle fame), Max Born, Wolfgang Pauli, and Paul Dirac.
Almost a century afterward, the debate rages on.
Einstein vs. Bohr, Redux
Two books — one authored by Sean Carroll and published last fall and another published very recently and authored by Carlo Rovelli — perfectly illustrate how current leading physicists still cannot come to terms with the nature of quantum reality. The opposing positions still echo, albeit with many modern twists and experimental updates, the original Einstein-Bohr debate.
Albert Einstein and Niels Bohr, two giants of 20th century science, espoused very different worldviews.
I summarized the ongoing dispute in my book The Island of Knowledge: Are the equations of quantum physics a computational tool that we use to make sense of the results of experiments (Bohr), or are they supposed to be a realistic representation of quantum reality (Einstein)? In other words, are the equations of quantum theory the way things really are or just a useful map?
Einstein believed that quantum theory, as it stood in the 1930s and 1940s, was an incomplete description of the world of the very small. There had to be an underlying level of reality, still unknown to us, that made sense of all its weirdness. De Broglie and, later, David Bohm, proposed an extension of the quantum theory known as hidden variable theory that tried to fill in the gap. It was a brilliant attempt to appease the urge Einstein and his followers had for an orderly natural world, predictable and reasonable. The price — and every attempt to deal with the problem of figuring out quantum theory has a price tag — was that the entire universe had to participate in determining the behavior of every single electron and all other quantum particles, implicating the existence of a strange cosmic order.
Later, in the 1960s, physicist John Bell proved a theorem that put such ideas to the test. A series of remarkable experiments starting in the 1970s and still ongoing have essentially disproved the de Broglie-Bohm hypothesis, at least if we restrict their ideas to what one would call "reasonable," that is, theories that have local interactions and causes. Omnipresence — what physicists call nonlocality — is a hard pill to swallow in physics.
Credit: Public domain
Yet, the quantum phenomenon of superposition insists on keeping things weird. Here's one way to picture quantum superposition. In a kind of psychedelic dream state, imagine that you had a magical walk-in closet filled with identical shirts, the only difference between them being their color. What's magical about this closet? Well, as you enter this closet, you split into identical copies of yourself, each wearing a shirt of a different color. There is a you wearing a blue shirt, another a red, another a white, etc., all happily coexisting. But as soon as you step out of the closet or someone or something opens the door, only one you emerges, wearing a single shirt. Inside the closet, you are in a superposition state with your other selves. But in the "real" world, the one where others see you, only one copy of you exists, wearing a single shirt. The question is whether the inside superposition of the many yous is as real as the one you that emerges outside.
To Einstein, the world was ultimately rational... To Bohr, we had no right to expect any such order or rationality.
The (modern version of the) Einstein team would say yes. The equations of quantum physics must be taken as the real description of what's going on, and if they predict superposition, so be it. The so-called wave function that describes this superposition is an essential part of physical reality. This point is most dramatically exposed by the many-worlds interpretation of quantum physics, espoused in Carroll's book. For this interpretation, reality is even weirder: the closet has many doors, each to a different universe. Once you step out, all of your copies step out together, each into a parallel universe. So, if I happen to see you wearing a blue shirt in this universe, in another, I'll see you wearing a red one. The price tag for the many-worlds interpretation is to accept the existence of an uncountable number of non-communicating parallel universes that enact all possibilities from a superstition state. In a parallel universe, there was no COVID-19 pandemic. Not too comforting.
Bohm's team would say take things as they are. If you stepped out of the closet and someone saw you wearing a shirt of a given color, then this is the one. Period. The weirdness of your many superposing selves remains hidden in the quantum closet. Rovelli defends his version of this worldview, called relational interpretation, in which events are defined by the interactions between the objects involved, be them observers or not. In this example, the color of your shirt is the property at stake, and when I see it, I am entangled with this specific shirt of yours. It could have been another color, but it wasn't. As Rovelli puts it, "Entanglement… is the manifestation of one object to another, in the course of an interaction, in which the properties of the objects become actual." The price to pay here is to give up the hope of ever truly understanding what goes on in the quantum world. What we measure is what we get and all we can say about it.
What should we believe?
Both Carroll and Rovelli are master expositors of science to the general public, with Rovelli being the more lyrical of the pair.
There is no resolution to be expected, of course. I, for one, am more inclined to Bohr's worldview and thus to Rovelli's, although the interpretation I am most sympathetic to, called QBism, is not properly explained in either book. It is much closer in spirit to Rovelli's, in that relations are essential, but it places the observer on center stage, given that information is what matters in the end. (Although, as Rovelli acknowledges, information is a loaded word.)
We create theories as maps for us human observers to make sense of reality. But in the excitement of research, we tend to forget the simple fact that theories and models are not nature but our representations of nature. Unless we nurture hopes that our theories are really how the world is (the Einstein camp) and not how we humans describe it (the Bohr camp), why should we expect much more than this?
Maybe eyes really are windows into the soul — or at least into the brain, as a new study finds.
- Researchers find a correlation between pupil size and differences in cognitive ability.
- The larger the pupil, the higher the intelligence.
- The explanation for why this happens lies within the brain, but more research is needed.
What can you tell by looking into someone's eyes? You can spot a glint of humor, signs of tiredness, or maybe that they don't like something or someone.
But outside of assessing an emotional state, a person's eyes may also provide clues about their intelligence, suggests new research. A study carried out at the Georgia Institute of Technology shows that pupil size is "closely related" to differences in intelligence between individuals.
The scientists found that larger pupils may be connected to higher intelligence, as demonstrated by tests that gauged reasoning skills, memory, and attention. In fact, the researchers claim that the relationship of intelligence to pupil size is so pronounced, that it came across their previous two studies as well and can be spotted just with your naked eyes, without any additional scientific instruments. You should be able to tell who scored the highest or the lowest on the cognitive tests just by looking at them, say the researchers.
The pupil-IQ link
The connection was first noticed across memory tasks, looking at pupil dilations as signs of mental effort. The studies involved more than 500 people aged 18 to 35 from the Atlanta area. The subjects' pupil sizes were measured by eye trackers, which use a camera and a computer to capture light reflecting off the pupil and cornea. As the scientists explained in Scientific American, pupil diameters range from two to eight millimeters. To determine average pupil size, they took measurements of the pupils at rest when the participants were staring at a blank screen for a few minutes.
Another part of the experiment involved having the subjects take a series of cognitive tests that evaluated "fluid intelligence" (the ability to reason when confronted with new problems), "working memory capacity" (how well people could remember information over time), and "attention control" (the ability to keep focusing attention even while being distracted). An example of the latter involves a test that attempts to divert a person's focus on a disappearing letter by showing a flickering asterisk on another part of the screen. If a person pays too much attention to the asterisk, they might miss the letter.
The conclusions of the research were that having a larger baseline pupil size was related to greater fluid intelligence, having more attention control, and even greater working memory capacity, although to a smaller extent. In an email exchange with Big Think, author Jason Tsukahara pointed out, "It is important to consider that what we find is a correlation — which should not be confused with causation."
The researchers also found that pupil size seemed to decrease with age. Older people had more constricted pupils but when the scientists standardized for age, the pupil-size-to-intelligence connection still remained.
Why are pupils linked to intelligence?
The connection between pupil size and IQ likely resides within the brain. Pupil size has been previously connected to the locus coeruleus, a part of the brain that's responsible for synthesizing the hormone and neurotransmitter norepinephrine (noradrenaline), which mobilizes the brain and body for action. Activity in the locus coeruleus affects our perception, attention, memory, and learning processes.
As the authors explain, this region of the brain "also helps maintain a healthy organization of brain activity so that distant brain regions can work together to accomplish challenging tasks and goals." Because it is so important, loss of function in the locus coeruleus has been linked to conditions like Alzheimer's disease, Parkinson's, clinical depression, and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).
The researchers hypothesize that people who have larger pupils while in a restful state, like staring at a blank computer screen, have "greater regulation of activity by the locus coeruleus." This leads to better cognitive performance. More research is necessary, however, to truly understand why having larger pupils is related to higher intelligence.
In an email to Big Think, Tsukahara shared, "If I had to speculate, I would say that it is people with greater fluid intelligence that develop larger pupils, but again at this point we only have correlational data."
Do other scientists believe this?
As the scientists point out in the beginning of their paper, their conclusions are controversial and, so far, other researchers haven't been able to duplicate their results. The research team addresses this criticism by explaining that other studies had methodological issues and examined only memory capacity but not fluid intelligence, which is what they measured.