My childhood memories of growing up in Fiji are filled with images of the islands, and playing on beaches and sand flats for hours upon end from day to night. Back then there was so much to see and explore – so much marine life scurrying about startled by our noisy feet and squeals of glee. We chased crabs down holes, and dug through sand to find sigawale, a little bivalve clam (and local delicacy) that buries itself a 10-20 centimetres below the surface of the sand at low tide.

But like all children, there were things I feared – illogical things. And one of these were the ‘erky-perkies.’ The sight of them would paralyse me, and I would cling onto my father begging him to carry me. If he refused, I would cry and wail as loudly as I could until he relented and carried me safely in his arms. Black, long, snake-like creatures, sitting on mud or sand flats capable of elongating their body and squeezing into all sorts of shapes. These erky-perkies were so plentiful that in some places you could not walk in a straight line before you walked into one.

I look back at those memories now with a tinge of sadness. Little did I know that those animals I feared were harmless sea cucumbers called ‘snakefish’ (Holothuria coluber), sifting and processing sand and mud, playing a critical and poorly understood role in our marine environment. They churn through sediment aerating it, keep sediments clean of algae and help in the processing of nutrients.

Erky-perkies are supposed to be out there, in high numbers. Moving at a little more than snail pace, these animals cannot escape from one of their largest predators, human-beings. They are in high demand in places like China, as they are eaten almost daily as a health tonic and a local delicacy.
Over the last 10 days of surveys, I realised that I had not seen a snakefish once. And what was worrying was that the more than twenty other species that should have been out there on sand flats, seagrass beds or on coral reefs, were either absent or in very low numbers. Why does this matter?

Well, sea cucumbers have separate sexes and so if there are too few of them out there, the likelihood of getting together and producing more offspring is very low. It could take years or decades for over-exploited populations to return. Things have got so bad in many of the Pacific Island countries that they have imposed five year moratoria to allow the populations to recover. Fiji is one of the countries that has continued to export sea cucumbers.

Now my childhood fear is replaced by an even bigger one. What will life be like on our mud and sand flats without the erky perkies? And what will happen to our marine systems if we take out the sea cucumbers, and there is none left? Let’s hope it does not go that far.

By Sangeeta Mangubhai