Sea cucumber: Sustainable management of a seafood delicacy

Sea cucumber is becoming increasingly profitable in the Pacific, as fishing communities are helped to improve post-harvest processing and sustainably produce high-quality beche-de-mer. A variety of initiatives led by the Secretariat of the Pacific Community are boosting incomes from high-quality sea cucumber exports, whilst protecting against overexploitation.

Sea cucumber is the Pacific’s second most valuable marine export after tuna © Neil Cook | Environmental Research Institute Charlotteville

Sea cucumber farming is set to become increasingly lucrative in the Pacific as initiatives address poor post-harvest processing and overexploitation of natural stocks. Focused on ensuring that communities in Fiji, Kiribati and Tonga fetch the best price for sea cucumber, since 2013 a project has been training fishermen to efficiently process high quality beche-de-mer (dried sea cucumber). 

Sea cucumber is the Pacific’s second most valuable marine export after tuna, providing a primary source of income for around 300,000 small-scale fishermen and earning the region €18-46 million per year. However, depending on species, size and quality, the price that beche-de-mer can be sold to Asian exporters, where it is a delicacy used in a variety of dishes, varies considerably, ranging between €2.70/kg and €78/kg. Despite its potentially high intrinsic value, sea cucumber fishers have not been successfully maximising their returns, which has been attributed, in particular, to a lack of knowledge of effective post-harvesting processes.  

To raise awareness about best practices in sea cucumber handling and production, the Secretariat of the Pacific Community (SPC) has partnered with the Australian Centre for International Agricultural Research. Socio-economic surveys of Pacific fishers, investigating common post-harvest practices, led to the compilation of a technical manual explaining the most effective methods of sea cucumber harvesting and processing, specific to different locations. Available online, 5,300 manuals were also printed in English, Fijian, Tongan and Kiribati and distributed among fisher communities in these countries. 

Researchers have also conducted training workshops demonstrating the best methods of collection, handling, storage and processing. The workshops particularly emphasised the importance of properly gutting, cooking, salting, smoking and drying the sea cucumber to produce a higher quality product to obtain higher prices. In Fiji alone, 353 fishermen, including many women, were trained in workshops held in 24 villages. For those unable to attend the workshops, a 20 minute training video was also produced, which has achieved almost 2,500 views on YouTube since 2015. Fishers who have followed the training have reported higher returns from their sales, and several of those interviewed are following the recommendation to allow natural stocks to replenish by only harvesting larger sea cucumbers. 

To further address the overexploitation of sea cucumber in the Pacific, SPC has partnered with the Vanuatu Fisheries Department to establish Vanuatu’s first privately owned and operated sandfish hatchery. The new hatchery, Aquaculture Solutions Vanuatu, which opened in March 2017, has the capacity to sustainably produce tens of thousands of juvenile sandfish, a type of sea cucumber, which once mature can be harvested and processed into beche-de-mer

According to SPC’s Mariculture and Aquatic Biosecurity Specialist, Dr Michel Bermudes, “This type of hatchery provides a sustainable low-tech and low-cost template, a tool for stock enhancement and for marine aquaculture capacity building in Vanuatu. In time, this model can be replicated in other places where sandfish stock enhancement is also needed.” SPC has also recently embarked on an initiative, in collaboration with the World Bank, to explore the potential establishment of a sub-regional beche-de-mer trust, in the Melanesia region, to help manage and monitor sea cucumber exports.

Avneel Abhishay

The Technical Centre for Agricultural and Rural Cooperation (CTA) is a joint international institution of the African, Caribbean and Pacific (ACP) Group of States and the European Union (EU). CTA operates under the framework of the Cotonou Agreement and is funded by the EU.