By Shogo Mitsuzumi
Japan Coast Guard officers surrounded and closed in on 10 shady men with two rubber rafts on a Hokkaido beach, but three of them slipped away in the darkness of the early morning hours.
However, the operation by the Rumoi Coast Guard Office snared seven suspects, including high-ranking members of a yakuza crime group, and led to the seizure of a ton of illicit goods.
The 27 plastic cases confiscated did not hold guns or narcotics. They contained “namako” sea cucumbers with a market value of about 4 million yen ($34,000).
The yakuza booty uncovered along the Sea of Japan coast in Tomamae on July 9, 2014, was not an anomaly.
Sea cucumbers have become such a profitable commodity for gangsters that the bland-tasting creatures with a slippery texture are now referred to as the “black diamonds of the sea.”
According to Hokkaido police, poachers sell the sea cucumbers for about 3,000 yen a kilogram to middlemen, who resell them to businesses that dry the produce. By the time the dried sea cucumbers are exported to China, where they are considered a delicacy, the price has increased to about 120,000 yen a kilogram.
In China, it is not unusual for dried sea cucumbers to sell for between 300,000 yen and 400,000 yen a kilogram.
The ease of harvesting and the high prices have caught the attention of gangsters, police say.
Last year, Hokkaido police detained eight groups, including 70 yakuza members, on suspicion of poaching seafood. Of the total, 56 members in five groups were detained over poached sea cucumbers.
The number of arrested organized crime members was the largest in Hokkaido over the past five years and was up from 39 the previous year.
Authorities face an uphill battle against the poachers because not only are the seas off Japan’s northernmost main island bountiful, but it is extremely difficult to monitor the 4,400 kilometers of coastline.
The ton of sea cucumbers uncovered in Tomamae last year was the largest haul in poached seafood for the 1st Regional Coast Guard Headquarters, which is in charge of Hokkaido.
The seven men arrested on the spot were suspected of violating the Fishery Law. The three who escaped were caught two months later.
According to the Asahikawa District Court, the group members were repeat offenders. One of them played various roles in about 30 separate poaching incidents.
The man referred to as “boss” by the others was sentenced to 18 months in prison and fined 1 million yen.
According to officials of the Hokkaido police and the 1st Regional Coast Guard Headquarters, poachers in Hokkaido used to primarily target crab and abalone.
Crab topped the list of poached seafood with 700 kilograms confiscated in 2012, a year after Hokkaido adopted an ordinance banning companies from doing business with organized crime groups.
However, for both 2013 and 2014, sea cucumbers became the most poached seafood, with the amount confiscated in both years exceeding 2 tons.
“Fishing equipment and traps are needed for crabs,” a high-ranking officer with the Hokkaido police said. “Sea urchins and abalone have to be scraped by hand off rocks along the coast. But it is easy to gather sea cucumbers, which can be found in shallow waters.”
In addition, organized crime groups can use established channels for selling poached marine products.
“Money can be earned by simply poaching and selling the sea cucumbers. It is likely a very easy crime for the gangsters,” the officer said.