Between Apulia (Southern Italy) and Greece, there is an illicit trade in sea cucumbers, which are in great demand in Asia. At the core of this trade, an investigation carried out by Italian financial police and coast guard identified a Greek wholesaler and local Italian suppliers with known criminal networks, as well as intermediaries between EU-water based sea cucumbers and China-based buyers. This lengthy investigation exposes a transnational multi-million-dollar business that damages the delicate biodiversity of the Mediterranean Sea.
Despite the applied bans and legal proceedings, in the Adriatic sea, between Italy and Greece, an illegal trade of sea cucumbers is still impacting the Ionian seabed and upsetting the marine ecosystem. “The Greeks still send middlemen to buy from the illegal fishermen. They arrive with suitcases full of money and do it right under everyone’s nose,” says Tommaso Dilonardo, a 60-year-old entrepreneur from Martina Franca (near Taranto, in Southern Italy) who formerly traded in sea cucumbers and now faces two prosecutions.
Since 2018, the Italian State has forbidden the fishing of holothurians, or sea cucumbers, that flourished around 2015. According to an investigation carried out by the Italian coast guard, a Greek wholesaler would convince some of his Apulian suppliers in Italy, some with criminal records, to provide him with these marine animals that were widespread on the sandy surface of the Gulf of Taranto. “It was not a lucrative business for the local people, but it was for the intermediaries,” emphasizes Captain Diego Tomat, Commander of the Harbor Master's Office.
Sea cucumbers, an endangered species, are destined for the Chinese market, where they are highly prized (and priced very well) for use in cooking and cosmetics. Despite bans, the targeting of these species has not stopped. “In the Mar Grande the fishing continues at night,” reveals Luciano Manna, an activist from Taranto who first publicly reported the illegal trade, “and the direction of trafficking is always the same.”
Ester Cecere, a biologist whose work brought the national ban into being, is also certain: “I have found many open and eviscerated specimens, perhaps hastily unloaded from some boats.”
Taranto, Ilva and dioxin mussels
In Italy, a hub of the sea cucumber trade is located in Taranto, also known as the city of two seas: the Mar Grande, where the open sea sees merchant ships and navy vessels pass daily, and the Mar Piccolo, an inlet enclosed by the old town of Taranto. Mussel farming is practised in these waters and is fundamental to the city’s economy. Regrettably, ten years ago, the Regional Agency for Environmental Protection (ARPA) detected in the mussels the presence of dioxin and polychlorinated biphenyls (PCB), toxic substances coming from the smokestacks of Ilva, the steelworks that provides employment (but is also a cause of illness and death) for thousands of local inhabitants. “Since then, we environmentalists and activists have been keeping an eye on the dioxin and PCB values in the mussels, which are still high and still worrying,” explains Manna, founder of the whistleblowing website VeraLeaks.
The contamination generated by these toxic substances throws an entire sector in difficulty and there are those who, in order to make money, try to sell shelled and unlabeled mussels on the streets or to fishmongers. “I discovered the sea cucumber trade by following the sale of contaminated mussels,” Manna continues. An acquaintance told him about the sale of sea cucumbers to China. At the same time, near 2015, the Guardia di Finanza noticed that an increasing number of illegal sea urchin fishermen were looking for sea cucumbers, which were more profitable: “There were people diving into the sea for 50 euros a day, most of them ex-convicts, people with drug problems, poor people,” says Tommaso Dilonardo, an entrepreneur who formerly traded in holothurians.
Manna managed to get into the chat rooms of the sellers for his investigation. “The Taranto-based fishermen would ask for 10 euro a kilo, then the Asian salesman would put them up for sale on WeChat for 100 or 200 dollars a kilo.” In 2018, the activist filed a complaint with the Public Prosecutor’s Office.
Manna’s complaint came to the attention of a Magistrate, Deputy Prosecutor Mariano Buccoliero, who had already started investigating the illicit trade back in 2015, the year the law on eco-crimes was introduced in Italy. Buccoliero suspected that both pollution and environmental degradation-related crimes had been committed, and asked the Institute for the Coastal Marine Environment of the CNR (Italian National Research Council) for an analysis.
Two biologists, Elena Cecere and Loredana Stabili, drew up a report. “Holothurians play a fundamental role in the marine ecosystem,” Stabili explains to Lavialibera. “They live on the seabed and eat the sediment, stirring it up and oxygenating it. From the sediment they capture bacteria, some of which are pathogenic to humans, and microalgae on which they feed, then release it free of these components. Finally, they fertilize the sediment by allowing plants to grow.” These include posidonia, which in turn helps oxygenate the water.
“Any large-scale event, such as the poaching of tons of sea cucumbers, causes damage that can sometimes even be irreversible,” Cecere adds. In 2018, the Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Forestry (MiPAAF) banned holothurian fishing largely due to the work of these two scientists.
Meanwhile, the Guardia di Finanza and the police carried out an investigation called the Blue Desert. They monitored fishers holding permits, but also those without: unemployed people, illegal parkers or drug dealers, who dive to collect “sea pizzas” (this is how holothurians are referred to in Apulia), mussels and sea urchins.
The Public Prosecutor’s Office identified two separate groups led by the brothers Giuseppe and Emanuele Catapano, seafood merchants who in the 1990s had been involved in extorting mussel farmers for the Modeo clan, the most powerful organized crime group in the city.
In 2010, they were sentenced to four years’ imprisonment on charges of mafia association for the purpose of extortion. “In the meantime, they have cleaned themselves up by devoting themselves to the legitimate economy,” their lawyer, Gaetano Vitale, said in an interview to Lavialibera. In January, however, the Anti-Mafia Investigative Directorate confiscated five-million-euros worth of assets from one of the brothers, believing them to be the fruit of extortions from mussel farmers carried out years earlier.
Starting from 2015, by trading in holothurians, the Catapano brothers have moved into a kind of grey area. For the prosecution, the two groups exploited “numerous small-scale illegal fishermen” causing “serious damage to biodiversity” with “serious and irreversible alteration of the marine ecosystem”. Giuseppe and his wife are accused of having exported to Hong Kong more than 353,000 kilos of processed product in 2015, “amounting to more than two million specimens of live holothurians, for a countervalue of 2,498,000 euros”, is written in a decision of the Italian Supreme Court concerning the seizure of Catapano’s storehouse.
Currently, the Catapano brothers, together with their respective wives and the entrepreneur Tommaso Dilonardo, are on trial. The defense challenges, among other things, the lack of a specific prohibition. “The prosecution believes that the Catapanos had organized the harvesting by the fishermen, but they actually bought the products from the fishermen, who were competing among themselves,” explains lawyer Vitale, claiming that the fishermen were not following Catapano’s orders.
Dilonardo, 60, from Martina Franca, also disputes the charge: “I tried to do things properly, cleanly, with lawyers and accountants.” He bought the holothurians from a fishermen’s cooperative, labeled and sold everything as bait because “it was the only clean way; they couldn’t be sold as a food product.”
The role of the Greek wholesaler
“This business came about thanks to the Greek Giorgio Dimoudis, who is my foreign seafood trader,” Emanuele Catapano explained to the judges on 30 May 2022 during his trial. Dimoudis is the vice-president and CEO of Dimoudis Bros., a company in Chalastra, near Thessaloniki, Greece which “has contacts throughout Apulia with seafood traders”, the defendant added during the hearing. In the transcripts of the hearing, Catapano also recalled how the collaboration started: “He explained to us that we could start processing this product, a sea bait that he needed for the Greek market. We replied that if it was a feasible thing we could start.”
The wholesaler would send trucks of mussels to Apulia, Italy and depart from Apulia with the sea cucumbers accumulated by the Taranto entrepreneurs in their network of suppliers. Dimoudis could “take twenty bins a day,” i.e. almost twenty tons a day.
According to the investigators, Dimoudis kept the contacts and took care of the business with the Chinese operators. His name also appears in another investigation, Kalimera, conducted by the Taranto Coast Guard, an eight-month-long investigation that led to 17 people being put under house arrest on 19 November 2021. The prosecution speaks of a criminal association aimed at eco-violence crimes led by two men, Ivan Cardellicchio and Vito Modesto Colella, both with previous convictions for drug dealing.
Dilonardo also appears in these proceedings, accused of receiving stolen goods for allegedly buying and selling (which he denies) 200 kilos of illegally fished holothurians. “I don’t understand all this fury against me, it seems to have become a personal matter,” he vented in an phone interview.
The 60-year-old, who came out of prison around 2005 with a diploma in his pocket, had started his own business in the fishing industry. Then, like others, he turned to the profitable sea cucumber trade business, until the seizures of goods, investigations and house arrest directives began in November 2021. “I don’t like being between the illegal and the legal,” Dilonardo continued, “I proposed to regulate the issue, but they raised a wall and those who benefited were the illegal fishermen and the Greeks.”
Many people involved in the 2021 Kalimera investigation explained to investigators that the sea cucumbers were bought from the Greek wholesaler. “Every day, one of the bosses would inform the divers of the place and time for night fishing,” the Coast Guard lieutenant Angelo Colonna stated in an interview. “Then, they would meet in San Vito, south of Taranto, to collect the produce. They would pay for the holothurians according to weight and type, the ‘white ones’ (holothuria tubulosa) being more valuable than the ‘black ones’ (holothuria polii). Afterwards, the second boss took the goods to the ports of Bari and Brindisi to deliver them to Greek truckers.” The total value estimated by the Coast Guard was of 4.5 million euros.
On 14 December 2015 in Gallipoli (Lecce), the Coast Guards found 11,383 kilos of holothurians on a truck destined for Dimoudis of the Pizzamarina company, who in turn had bought them from seven fishermen. The company is owned by Davide Quintana, 41, a seafood trader believed to be linked to the Rizzo clan of the Sacra Corona Unita, the Lecce mafia. In 2021, Quintana was sentenced on appeal to seven years for mafia association in the Labirinto trial. Since that seizure, the Guardia di Finanza has uncovered invoices for the sale of dozens of tons of holothurians, always classified as bait.
On 28 January 2022, Quintana and the fishermen were given a six-year sentence for committing the crime of environmental pollution, in other words for causing significant damage to water, air, soil or biodiversity. Ladislao Massari, Quintana’s lawyer, who has since filed an appeal, explains to us that this is “the maximum sentence possible”. Dimoudis, contacted by Lavialibera, did not respond to calls and messages.
In the ongoing trials, the lawyers point out that before 2018, holothurians were allowed to be caught: “It is not an edible species and the problem did not arise,” Stabili notes. The Court of Lecce, with its verdict, ruled that this is not relevant, because the law prohibits indiscriminate catching that damages biodiversity.
In Europe, the rules concerning the protection and the fishing of sea cucumber may vary from country to country. "At the level of the European Union or the General Fisheries Commission for the Mediterranean (a regional organization within the FAO) there are no measures to protect sea cucumbers in the Mediterranean," is the response of an official from the European Commission.
On the initiative of the EU, three types of sea cucumbers (but not those caught in Italy) were included among those protected by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Flora and Fauna (CITES). "The Commission has established bilateral dialogues with several Asian countries to encourage them to enhance the fight against illegal, unregulated and unreported fishing and to prevent imports of illegal fishery products such as sea cucumbers,” said Virginijus Sinkevičius, EU Commissioner for the Environment, in June 2021. Furthermore the European Union supports and finances some projects related to the breeding of sea cucumbers with the aim of diversifying aquaculture and making it more sustainable.
According to researchers, sea cucumbers are harvested and traded in more than 70 countries worldwide. The high level of consumption in Asia led to the over-exploitation of the resource and pushed Asian traders to seek sea cucumbers in other areas of the globe. The unregulated fishing provoked a drop in the stocks. It happened also in other Mediterranean countries, for example Egypt, where in 2001 authorities introduced a ban for the stock to recover, but it led to the development of a large illegal fishery.
In Italy, the ban arrived only in 2018, but it couldn’t stop the ongoing illicit activities: “They (the illegal fishers) don’t give up because it is a profitable business and for some it is worth risking prison”, concludes the biologist, Cecere.
This story was produced with support from Internews' Earth Journalism Network. It was first published in Lavialibera on 21 September 2022 in Italian. It has been translated to English by Marion Sarah Tuggey and lightly edited for length and clarity.
Banner image: A fisherman photographed during the Kalimera investigation / Credit: Italian Coast Guard.