Fishermen in the Gulf of Thailand risk their lives every day in a growing business of harvesting live sea snakes.
While squid fishing in the Gulf of Thailand, over seven different types of poisonous sea snakes are collected by the hundreds each day. Several of these snakes may be of threatened species and scientists are insisting that a monitoring program be implemented to assess the growing impact on the ecosystem and ensure they aren’t being over-harvested.
Only 20-30 fishing vessels collected the snakes 20 years ago. Today, 700 vessels harvest near 80 tons of snakes each year. Fishermen have noticed a decline in the population since 2009, and researchers want to learn if there are other contributing factors, like pollution.
The bulk of the fishing is done at night in small teams, using lights to attract squid and nets and hooks to catch them. However, the lights also attract the sea snakes which are caught in the same fashion. Of the species harvested, the majority are Hardwick’s and black-banded sea snakes.
The snakes are very poisonous; some even lethally so. But with a limited availability of anti-venom in the area, bites are just an occupational hazard that are addressed by piercing the skin with a razor to extract the venom. Some also use traditional remedies with no proven medical benefits, such as garlic or grated rhinoceros horn.
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Despite these risks, fishermen and the markets handle them with bare hands and walk through tanks of live snakes barefoot. At the docks, the merchants quickly sort up to 60 live snakes by size. From there, the snakes are distributed across Asia, often to China or Vietnam.
The snakes are used in food dishes, fried or eaten in soups, and even the internal organs are consumed. Additionally, whole snakes are submerged in rice wine as a drink or their blood is mixed with alcohol. Finally, “sea snake glue” is also made to purportedly cure several health conditions.