By Zachary Fagenson
MIAMI (Reuters) - Florida is capping the number of sea cucumbers that fisherman can pull from state waters after booming Asian demand led to four times as many being harvested in 2013 compared to previous years.
The leathery, cylindrical creatures scour ocean floors across the globe feeding on decaying organic matter. Named for their similarity to the vegetable, the marine animals are prized in China, sought for everything from an aphrodisiac to a cure for joint pain.
The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) said in a statement on Wednesday that from June 1, daily sea cucumber hauls will be limited to 200 per vessel.
The decision was prompted by a booming trade that saw fisherman pull nearly 60,000 of them from the waters surrounding Key West in 2013.
Previously about 16,000 were caught annually, the agency said. The rule showed how the sea cucumber was "an important part of the ecosystem and how easily affected they are by over-harvesting," said FWC spokeswoman Amanda Nalley.
"Sea cucumbers are vulnerable to over-fishing due to their sedentary nature, which makes them easy to locate and collect," the FWC said in a statement. "They are also ecologically important as they help cycle nutrients in nutrient-poor tropical reefs and oxygenate sediments."
Sea cucumber over-harvesting has destroyed populations in nearly a dozen countries' waters, Nalley added, including Costa Rica, India and Ecuador.
In China, sea cucumbers from Japan can sell for up to $5,000 per pound, according to Eric Lee, president of Florida Sea Cucumber Corp, in the Florida Keys.
Sea cucumbers from the Caribbean can fetch between $70 and $150 per pound, though in most parts of the United States, they sell for only a dollar, he added.
The new rule, along with a recent dive in sea cucumber prices due in part to an austerity drive by China Premier Xi Jinping, shuttered Florida Sea Cucumber, located about an hour from Key West.
Xi in mid-2013 implemented budgetary restrictions aimed at curbing the lavish spending habits of government elites to improve the Communist Party's image.
Lee had been planning a major marketing effort to introduce Florida sea cucumbers to China, hoping to sell them for about $200 per pound.
"We have to go back and figure out what to do now that we're out of business," he said.
(Editing by G Crosse and David Adams)