Where do the medium and low value species of beche-de-mer go to after being exported from the Pacific?

Where do the medium and low value species of beche-de-mer go to after being exported from the Pacific?

By Watisoni Lalavanua

Since I began collecting bêche-de-mer (the traded form of sea cucumbers) data in the seafood markets of Hong Kong three days ago, I realized that a majority of the species from the Pacific were the high-value species, such as white teatfish (Holothuria fuscogilva), black teatfish (Holothuria whitmaei), sandfish (Holothuria scabra) and golden sandfish (Holothuria lessoni). Golden sandfish has gone locally extinct from many parts of Fiji, none being sold anymore in the local Suva market.

Data-collection-in-China. Photo:Guanglin Wan

Data-collection-in-China. Photo:Guanglin Wan

But where do the medium and low value species go if they are not being sold in Hong Kong?

We took a 4 hour bus ride crossing the border between Hong Kong and mainland China, to Guangzhou to find the Yi de lu seafood market. With a population of 15 million, Guangzhou is the third largest city in China. After encountering a few difficulties when arriving at the border and having to reason with a local taxi driver who tried to rip us off by doubling the taxi fare, we managed to arrive safely at Guangdong Victory Hotel.

Poorly-processed Stonefish-Actinopyga-lecanora. Photo:Watisoni-Lalavanua.

Poorly-processed Stonefish-Actinopyga-lecanora. Photo:Watisoni-Lalavanua/WCS.

In typical research fashion, we ignored the fading light and headed straight to the Yi de lu markets. There we found dried sea cucumbers, or bêche-de-mer, were sold beside other seafood products such as abalone, shrimp, prawn, fish maw and the famous shark fin. We found that where many of the medium and the low-value species end up in Yi de lu for sale.

Since Hong Kong is the main entree point in South China, bêche-de-mer from the Pacific is exported directly to Hong Kong. The Hong Kong markets retain the high-value species and high-quality products and re-export the medium and the low-value species to Yi de lu markets. Anyone following the market chain of this lucrative industry will need to make sure they spend time in both Hong Kong and mainland China to get the full picture.

Slugs, slugs and more slugs in the Hong Kong markets

Slugs, slugs and more slugs in the Hong Kong markets

By Watisoni Lalavanua

There were no words to describe my shock at the sheer volumes and diversity of products that end up in the dried seafood markets in the Sheung-Wan district in Hong Kong. Small shops line the market with dried bêche-de-mer products preserved in glass jars with labels that clearly state where the bêche-de-mer comes from and the prices they fetch.

Sandfish-and-Golden-sandfish-in-open-bins. Photo: Watisoni-Lalavanua/WCS

Sandfish-and-Golden-sandfish-in-open-bins. Photo: Watisoni-Lalavanua/WCS

In Sheung-Wan District I found very species I used to encounter during underwater surveys, that I used to talk about with local fishers during socio-economic surveys and that my brother harvests back in our village in Navatu in Kubulau. The markets were filled with mainly the high-valued species such as white teatfish, black teatfish, sandfish and golden sandfish. There was no sign of low and medium-value species to be found in these markets, reflecting the real preferences of buyers and what species are the most profitable.

I learnt that bêche-de-mer in Hong Kong are sold in per catty ( or kati) which is equivalent to 605 grams and this is different from China in which it is sold in per Jin (市斤) which is equivalent to 500 grams. Prices differ in terms of species, sizes and the quality of which the bêche-de-mer has been processed.

High quality, well-processed bêche-de-mer fetched high prices and were usually displayed prominently in glass jars. More poorly processed bêche-de-mer were largely sold in open bags or bins. A small portion of sea cucumbers were being sold frozen, or even packed in a gift pack and sold at very higher prices.

We were lucky to be allowed by more than a dozen shop owners at the market to measure and weigh their products. We took the measurements so that we could better understand the relationship between prices, sizes and weights of bêche-de-mer sold in the Hong Kong markets. We also wanted to see if prices had changed between an earlier study by Dr Steve Purcell in 2011 and our 2016 trip.

 Highest-price-of-Sandfish-in-the-Hong-Kong-market. Photo: Watisoni-Lalavanua/WCS

Highest-price-of-Sandfish-in-the-Hong-Kong-market. Photo: Watisoni-Lalavanua/WCS

It has been an incredible learning experience to walk through the dried sea food markets in Hong Kong, tracking the market and value chain of Pacific products from fishers to exporters in Fiji, and from importers here in Hong Kong to wholesalers and retailers. As I wondered from shop to shop piled shelf-high in sea cucumbers, it became clear to me how important these dried sea slugs were to Chinese culture, as both a daily tonic for health, and local delicacy.

One thing was clear – the demand side for sea cucumbers was not going to stop now or in the near future. Managing the sea cucumber fishery from the demand side is fraught with insurmountable challenges. As a Pacific Islander, I understand that to stop the over-exploitation of our marine stocks is to place the right management measures in place to control the increasing demand of seafood from Asia.

Promoting better understanding of sea cucumber fisheries and the need for management in Oceania

Promoting better understanding of sea cucumber fisheries and the need for management in Oceania

By Watisoni Lalavanua

Our research team from Fiji and Australia had the opportunity to enlighten university students on fishing activities, stock conditions and socio-economics of artisanal sea cucumber fisheries in Oceania, through a seminar organised by grouper expert Dr. Yvonne Sadovy at the University of Hong Kong.

We wanted to share the results from two papers titled Trends in small scale artisanal fishing of sea cucumbers in Oceania which was published in the journal Fisheries Research (http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0165783616301473) and Multiple factors affect socio-economics and wellbeing of artisanal sea cucumber fishers, which will be coming out soon in the open-access journal PloS ONE.

Dr.-Purcell-presenting-on-the-consumption-of-sea-cucumbers. Photo: Guanlin Wang.

Dr Purcell-presenting-on-the-consumption-of-sea-cucumbers. Photo: Guanlin Wang.

Our work has shown that fishers invest a lot of time in travelling and fishing of sea cucumbers, and there are vast difference in catch composition between fisher men and fisher women. IN general, fishers believed that sea cucumber stocks are declining due to too many fishers in the fishery with about 50% of fishers being dissatisfied with the income they received from selling sea cucumbers. Many believe that if the fishery is closed for stock recovery, the main fall back income streams for fishers will be other fisheries with endangered species or are already depleted, such as turtles, sharks and other invertebrates like giant clams.

The most interesting portion of the seminar was the Q&A session. Some of the interesting questions received from the audience were:

  1. What are the management measures taken by Fiji in responding to the numbers of death due to the use of SCUBA for harvesting sea cucumbers?

The Ministry of Fisheries in Fiji is working very hard in pushing for the Fiji National Sea Cucumber Management plan to be passed through cabinet and the management plan does highlight the prohibition in the use of SCUBA.

  1. What were the main commodities for trade in Fiji before the sea cucumber trade in which Fiji can strengthen to help in the recovery of the depleted sea cucumber stocks?

Sea cucumber trade in Fiji is has a long history, it is believed to be the first commodities together with Sandalwood and therefore there were no other commodities before sea cucumber)

  1. Why is it difficult for some fishers to sell their catch?

This is due to remoteness of location, in which buyers can only come once a month due to the schedule of plane and ship to these locations and in the case for Kiribati, buyers doesn’t have enough money to buy the sea cucumbers that had already been harvested by fishers)

  1. Why bêche-de-mer in the Pacific is exported directly to Honk Kong and not to mainland China?

Hong Kong has tariff free trade for imported seafood compared to China in which tax is applied).

To improve management of the sea cucumber fisheries in the Pacific, a number of management measures were highlighted from our research which needed to be taken into consideration by fisheries managers. These management measures include “limited entry” of fishers into this fishery because there are already too many fishers operating in the fishery. Fishers openly acknowledge this. At the same time, management measures needs to consider gender differences in fishing and catches and any closing of the fishery needs to take into consideration the cascading effect this might have on other marine resources already been over-exploited.

Where have all our sea cucumbers gone?

Where have all our sea cucumbers gone?

By Watisoni Lalavanua

Ni hao from Hong Kong!

I am embracing an opportunity of a lifetime to be part of a research team that is following the sale of sea cucumbers along its market chain from fishers to exporters in Fiji, and on to importers, retailers and consumers in Hong Kong.

Sea-cucumber-dish-in-a-restraunt-in-Sai-Kung-district. Photo: Watisoni Lalavanua/WCS

Sea-cucumber-dish-in-a-restraunt-in-Sai-Kung-district. Photo: Watisoni Lalavanua/WCS

This is part of a unique collaboration between Dr. Steven Purcell (Southern Cross University), Poasi Ngaluafe (Tonga Ministry of Fisheries), Sailasa Tagica (Partners in Community Development Fiji) and Guanglin Wang (Australian Center of International Agricultural Research, China), and funded by the Australian Centre for International Agricultural Research (ACIAR) and the Wildlife Conservation Society.

Unknown to most, a large portion of tropical species of sea cucumbers harvested from the Pacific end up being exported to and sold here in Hong Kong and mainland China. Usually the sea cucumbers pass through Hong Kong first due to tariff free trade here compared to mainland China where tax is applied. This makes Hong Kong a real hub for the Asian seafood trade.

Sea cucumbers are considered a luxury food for Asian consumers who enjoy eating them at festive dinners and business banquets alongside other “delicacies” including fish maw (fish swim bladder), abalone, swiftlet bird nests and shark fin. Sea cucumbers are an integral part of traditional Chinese medicines and mostly traded in dried form known as bêche-de-mer. Prices of dried sea cucumbers vary from AU$10 to well over AU$1000 per kilogram, depending on the species, size and how well it has been processed. It is a lucrative business both in Fiji and here in Asia.

Sea-cucumber-markets-in-Hong-Kong;. Photo by Watisoni-Lalavanua.

Sea-cucumber-markets-in-Hong-Kong. Photo by Watisoni Lalavanua/WCS

The main objectives of our study is to find out the prices of the different sea cucumber that are sold in Hong Kong and mainland China, and to determine whether the relationships between prices of sea cucumbers and the size of the products have changed in recent years. We are interested in understanding if there is a difference in prices fetched for sea cucumbers from the Western Pacific and other regions such as the Indian Ocean.

Over the next 2 weeks we will be collecting price and size data of beche-de-mer in Sheung Wan District in Hong Kong and Guangzhou in China. It is certainly an eye opener to come and witness for myself where Fiji’s tropical sea cucumber species end up and their value on the Asian market. Stay tuned to this space, and I will keep sharing more of what I learn about this globally significant trade.