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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.
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 (斤 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.
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.
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.
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:
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.
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)
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)
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.