DZILAM DE BRAVO, Mexico — Whispers of high-speed boat chases, harpoon battles on the open sea and divers who dived deep and never re-emerged come and go around here like an afternoon gale.
The fishermen eye strangers, and one another, with deep suspicion. “We’ll tear them apart,” said one, Jorge Luis Palma, squinting into the horizon at a boat he did not recognize.
What has wrapped this village in such hostility?
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The spiky, sluglike animals are bottom feeders that are not even consumed in Mexico, but they are a highly prized delicacy half a world away, in China, setting off a maritime gold rush up and down the Yucatán Peninsula.
“There is tension,” said Manuel Sierra, one of the unofficial leaders of the fishermen, “and now it has exploded.”
There has been an indefinite ban on fishing sea cucumbers since mid-February, but it has been loosely enforced and the black market is thriving.
With a growing Chinese middle class, demand for sea cucumbers has soared, depleting populations in Asian and Pacific waters because of overfishing.
“Sea-cucumber fever,” as residents call it, has taken a toll here, too. Of the estimated 20,000 tons available in 2009, only 1,900 tons are left, according to Felipe Cervera, secretary of rural development in Quintana Roo state.
That drop led to the ban, to allow the population to replenish. But it came during seasonal bans on grouper, octopus and lobster.
With few alternative sources of income, some fishermen are going after the sea cucumbers clandestinely, far from the coast and often in the middle of the night.
Once they have harvested and prepared the sea cucumbers, fishermen sell them to people they euphemistically call “intermediaries,” who coordinate the overland journey to ports in northern Mexico. From there, where the authorities are less concerned with illegal sea products than drug shipments, the harvest is shipped to China, where a single pound can sell for $300.
With the quest to meet demand and cash in — fishermen here can make more than $700 on a good day — have come tales of derring-do and danger.
Local residents have turned the Yucatan waters, rarely patrolled by the authorities, into a kind of Wild West, with communities claiming and guarding their slice of the marine pie.
Coastal towns are growing increasingly hostile to one another as families are divided between those who respect the bans and those who fish illegally. The growing divisions have already led to violence.
In late January, fishermen here in Dzilam de Bravo detained a boat from the nearby village of Progreso, brought it to shore and burned it. In cellphone video captured by a resident and shown on Milenio Television, a crowd can be heard cheering as bright flames engulf the small vessel.
During a town meeting here this month, shouts filled a tense conference room in the municipal palace as community members fought over what to do about the growing problem of “outsiders” seeking local fishing rights.
The Mexican navy has been deployed in Yucatan waters, though patrols are irregular. The government has set up highway checkpoints, too.
Fishermen have grown increasingly hostile toward the authorities, who they believe are cracking down on certain groups while, for a fee, helping others traffic in the contraband product.
Those involved in this bonanza risk more than jail time.
Indeed, untrained and underequipped, many fishermen have put down their harpoons and become divers in record time.
They plunge to depths of more than 50 feet with little more than a mask, their undergarments, a rickety hose for oxygen and a net, harvesting the glacial-paced animals like farmers picking strawberries.
Often, they come up too quickly or suffer other diving injuries. In Celestun, an estimated 30 fishermen have died from decompression sickness while harvesting sea cucumbers since 2009, according to Alvaro Hernandez, a researcher at the National Fisheries Institute.
“My children ask for him and I just don’t know what to tell them,” said Blanca Mezeta, 26, who said her husband died in January after diving for sea cucumbers. He felt sick after ascending, but his boss insisted they take the day’s catch to the buyer before going to a clinic.
The fishing is leaving an environmental mess, too. A recent visit to a clandestine site, where the recently harvested animals are boiled and salted, revealed rusted caldrons and hundreds of black plastic bags strewn around bushes and trees in Celestun National Park, a protected biosphere reserve. Sea-cucumber remains, beer bottles and empty cigarette packs dotted the coastline.
Back in the harbor, Roman Agusto Flores, a lifelong fisherman in Celestun who opposes the poaching, discreetly pointed out the different groups of men sitting on docked boats, distinguishing between those who engage in the illegal sea-cucumber trade and those who are restraining themselves. The two groups do not mix, he said.
“We have ruined everything ourselves,” Flores said.
Standing by the entrance to her shack at the end of a dirt road in Celestun, Mezeta, the woman who lost her husband, remembered asking him to stay away from sea cucumbers. “Stick with fish,” she said, fighting back tears, “even if it’s less money, we’ll still eat.”