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.

Safeguarding wildlife in Lomaiviti province

A traditional fisherman, Rusiate Valenitabua instinctively knows the spawning seasons of different marine animals, fishing techniques unique to his village as well as the role that mangroves play in sheltering communities. From the coastal village of Nukui in Rewa, Rusiate Valenitabua now lives in Lomaiviti as the newly appointed provincial conservation officer.

Rusiate Valenitabua conducting a field survey in the province.

Rusiate Valenitabua conducting a field survey in the province.

Having completed a Postgraduate Diploma in Biodiversity and Conservation at the University of the South Pacific, the Rewa lad was initially posted to Serua as the provincial conservation officer before being transferred to Lomaiviti in the Vatu-i-Ra Seascape.

En route to a village meeting in the rain

En route to a village meeting in the rain

His vision is to see that the province develops sustainably where people are able to retain the traditional custodianship of resources to ensure that they are able to leave a healthy natural legacy for the children and grandchildren.

Some of the positive steps being undertaken within Lomaiviti include the ongoing conservation efforts on Gau Island to protect the endangered Fiji Petrel and Collared Petrel birds, a coral regeneration project on Caqalai Island and the planting of sandalwood trees as a high value alternative income source for the communities.

At a rural consultation meeting with the Fijian Government's Director of Climate Change, Mr. Peter Emberson.

At a rural consultation meeting with the Fijian Government’s Director of Climate Change, Mr. Peter Emberson.

“There is now a natural resource management strategy in place for the province which we are collectively working toward. In this role, I am in constant interaction with community representatives, government and non-government partners to facilitate public consultations and advance awareness on existing programs such as climate change, natural disaster preparedness as well as to address concerns on unsustainable activities”, said Rusiate Valenitabua.

The communities from Ovalau and Koro are also working with the Wildlife Conservation Society to develop island-scale management plans for the two islands, that can an ecosystem-based management approach.
The success of these projects and other efforts are now largely the responsibility of the Lomaiviti Province Yaubula Management and Support team which brings together representatives from the different districts to advance the wise use of its natural resources.

Words by Dwain Qalovaki and images by the Lomaiviti Provincial Council

Dying for Fiji’s Sea Cucumbers

by Mongabay.org’s Special Reporting Initiative Fellow Amy West

Commercial divers operating out of Vuya District, Bua Province, with a prickly redfish and giant clam.

Commercial divers operating out of Vuya District, Bua Province, with a prickly redfish and giant clam.

Redfish, Greenfish, Blackfish.
Pinkfish, Curryfish, Lollyfish.

They sound like Dr. Seuss characters and certainly look like they should be. Yet these sausage-shaped, rubbery animals stippled in fleshy bumps are not fish at all, but an invertebrate in the group that includes sea stars, sea urchins and sand dollars. Sea cucumbers, referred to as “bêche-de-mer” or “trepang” when sold as dried food, are largely motionless creatures, which is why divers scoop hundreds of them up daily to export to Asia. A single high value individual in Fiji can fetch about $80 US, notes one report.

Sea cucumbers are not a new food craze; the Chinese have eaten them at least since the 1600s and sought this delicacy from Fiji since the early 1800s. Today, the increasing market demand and the push to dive deeper for these invertebrates and start new fisheries in other countries have sent stocks declining worldwide. Some have disappeared locally in Pacific Island nations, and in Fiji, divers are actually dying for them.

Sea cucumbers are often found just offshore, in sea grass beds, on the sandy seafloor, or wedged within reefs. Their slow nature and proximity to shore encouraged an easy harvest, particularly without a specific management plan or an enforced licensing system in Fiji. They’ve been taken before they can mature, or thinned to such low densities that detecting the chemical cues to spawn may not occur, making reproduction and recovery unlikely in many areas. Pacific island countries such as Samoa that declared a moratorium on bêche-de-mer exports have seen no recovery for some species. In fact, moratoriums in other countries have placed the burden on Fiji, which harvests 27 sea cucumber species and has seen an increase in export companies. Remote areas or deeper waters, where species such as amberfish or tigerfish would be naturally protected by depth, are now also targets. To reach them, fishermen deploy sea cucumber bombs (heavy lines with hooks). They have also increased their use of underwater breathing apparatus (UBA), which is normally banned, but is used illegally or exempted in many cases by the Fijian government.

To meet the costs of dive gear that is often lent by middlemen and the pressure of quotas, the harvesters may extend their time underwater, disregarding dive protocol, which can lead to death or paralysis from decompression sickness. The Fiji Times reported in April of 2013, “over the past eight years, 18 villagers from Naviti died from the use of UBAs while more than 12 developed partial paralysis.” Household interviews conducted on some of Fiji’s islands also confirmed deaths and injuries from SCUBA diving for bêche-de-mer. Numerous local newspaper articles document this problem, and it’s likely many more accidents go unreported, particularly in the outer islands.

Read more on Mongabay.org here: http://news.mongabay.com/2014/0623-sri-west-fiji-sea-cucumbers.html

Notes from the field: periodic harvests

I thought I’d be tweeting and blogging away from the field – but alas, since Digicel installed a tower in Kubulau, Vodafone signal is but a figment of my imagination. So I am cut off from all forms of communication with the outside world – six days in, it feels like a weight has been lifted.

After 18 long months of slogging it in the office and pitching proposals non-stop to donors, we are finally back in the field for a new project. During the past few years we have been collecting information about the reefs to provide recommendations about where to set up no-fishing zones (or marine protected areas – MPAs) and monitoring their effectiveness over time. This trip is different – we have asked the village of Kiobo in Kubulau District to open their MPA to see what happens. “What!” the purists would yell, “Open an MPA? Are you crazy?” But the simple fact is that rural communities in Fiji routinely open their MPAs to provide food for social functions. This practice comes from a cultural legacy throughout Melanesia of creating short-term, no-fishing zones specifically so that they would be able to have a great harvest for a social event and redistribute the food as a show of wealth and status. Thus, even though most communities within the Fiji Locally Managed Marine Area network say that they want to have fish for the future, they also very much want to have fish for the present.

More and more frequently, there are expectations that the MPAs can provide a source of income whenever the community needs money to pay school fees, church fees, provincial levies, etc. This is leading to more intense and more frequent harvests from MPAs, and the fish just don’t stand a chance. Here is where we come in – our current project is evaluating how much you can extract from an MPA and still have sustainable fisheries for the future. We recognise that the MPAs in Fiji work best where cultural practice is strong – and if cultural practice demands occasionally opening an MPA, then we need to be able to offer some better guidelines about how much can be harvested besides just “don’t take all the biggest fish.”

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In the field with us this time is Jordan Goetze, a PhD student from University of Western Australia, whom I’ve recruited to look at the ecological impacts of harvesting MPAs for his doctoral research. On this trip, he is testing out a range of survey methods to see which ones best document the impact of a week-long harvest from the Kiobo MPA. Our WCS staff are collecting our standard underwater visual census data, which he will compare with before and after harvest surveys of the reefs using diver-operated video and baited remote underwater video surveys (BRUVs). The diver-operated video information is certainly more efficient to collect than our laborious fish and benthic counts, while the BRUVs potentially allow us to collect a better record of predatory fish that are often skiddish of SCUBA divers. At the same time, we have sent out WCS staff and a Masters student from the University of the South Pacific to conduct household interviews to find out what the local people are expecting from the harvest in terms of food and monetary benefits, and then we will resurvey them after the event to see how these expectations were met.

Conducting fieldwork in remote Fiji is always challenging. Today we are stuck in the village as the fuel hose for our dive compressor became shredded, thus preventing us from filling our dive tanks. Waisea and Akuila have gone to Savusavu in search of a replacement. The winds have been up, causing rather treacherous conditions mooring at sites. Under pressure to complete 4 dives a day, we often find ourselves returning to the village for a low tide swap of empty for full tanks, which must be lugged across hundreds of meters of intertidal seagrass and algal beds. And there is no rest for the weary in the evening – data must be entered, kava drunk, and special efforts made to conduct awareness presentations in the surrounding villages so they understand what they stand to gain from the information collected from these surveys. Full support of the local communities is crucial for this project to succeed, so it is worth the extra effort to haul our generator, projector and white sheet around to the various villages by boat, often in the dark, for evening presentations to ensure that everyone knows what is happening.

What will we find when the MPA is opened? Unfortunately, it looks as though the local reports of emboldened poachers encroaching on inshore fishing grounds may be true. We certainly did not see overly abundant fish life in the MPA, and invertebrates were few and far between. Yet, hopefully the men and women of Kiobo village will still be able to pull in a sizeable catch, which can provide them a modicum of income while allowing us to gather a piece of the puzzle to evaluate thresholds of impact. Keep your coconut wireless tuned for the results . . . moce mada. Stacy

Sea cucumber harvest provides church roof

Holothuria scabra collected in Natuvu village

On the 24th September 2012 the communities of Natuvu village in Wailevu district started harvesting sea cucumbers (Holothuria scabra, or dairo in Fijian) from the shallow waters outside their marine protected area. Sea cucumbers are being cultured in Natuvu village through a joint project with Fiji Department of Fisheries, the Secretariat of the Pacific Community, and James Cook University. The dried animals fetch a high price for sale in Asian markets – up to $100 per kilo. Around 1,200 of the valuable animals were collected on the first day of the harvest and 1,000 individuals on the second day. We are waiting to hear the final catch figures for the harvest from the communities.

During the harvest I saw first-hand the long drying process to prepare the catch for sale. First the communities cooked the dairo then buried them in sand for 24 hours. After this, they cleaned them and cooked again for 10 minutes and then dried the cooked animals using dryers. Finally, the sea cucumbers are cooked again for 15-20 minutes and then sun dried until they are sold.

It was very encouraging to see the community come together as the women of the village cleaned the dairo while all the men helped out in the cooking, cleaning and drying. Harvesting will continue until enough money is collected from selling sea cucumbers to purchase new roofing material for their village church.

Catch information collected from this harvest will contribute to a study by the University of Georgia in the US. In August, WCS Fiji staff assisted Professor Mark Hay and his team to carry out surveys inside and outside the marine protected area owned by Natuvu village, for example gathering seabed sediment samples and assessing the density of sea cucumbers before the planned harvest. These data are now being analysed by Professor Hay, before he returns to Natuvu for a post-harvest survey. The research hopes to answer questions about the effects of large-scale harvests of sea cucumbers on ecosystem functions such as nutrient cycling.