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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.