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.

Understanding the role communities play in the sea cucumber fishery

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By Sangeeta Mangubhai

We are currently in Natokalau village, where we will be based for a week doing our value chain analysis surveys in different villages in Kubulau district, in Bua Province. Margaret Fox, Wildlife Conservation Society’s dynamic social scientist, has been leading the surveys with Tevita Vodivodi from the Department of Fisheries and our lively volunteers. Each day they sit down with fishers from different villages and ask them questions that help us understand their role and engagement in this fishery.

Questions vary from when they go fishing for sea cucumbers, how often and with whom, to questions relating to their catch and how much they earn from selling different species of sea cucumbers. We try and find out if they process the sea cucumbers themselves or prefer to sell the live animals to middlemen or exporters directly. Importantly, we ask how much the money they receive from sea cucumbers contributes to their fortnightly or monthly income. This allows us to understand how dependent they are on the resource, and if they have other options available to them, such as agriculture or copra.

Quality of the processing and the final product are important in this fishery and can impact on the income local communities make from their sea cucumbers. Villagers that know how, and how long to cook sea cucumbers without causing their skins to blister and break open get a better price for their product. Those that know how to gut, salt and dry the sea cucumbers get an even higher price, if it is done properly.

What has been interesting to learn is how some villagers operate individually, and others operate collectively. The ones that are operating collectively as a village, strictly controlling tabu areas and the timing of harvests appear to be doing much better. The money they earn gets used to provide facilities (e.g. schools, church) and village projects where everyone benefits. They also have stronger bargaining powers when it comes to selling their product, and more incentive to manage their fishery sustainably.

As Margaret and I reflected on this, she reminded me of an old slogan that was used in Fiji a few years ago that appears to be alive here in Kubulau – “Conservation Begins With Communities.”

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

Totoya times two

20130604_Totoya_SJupiter_06a_sm I’m having flashbacks. Two years ago on this very day, I was sitting on board a similar-sized yacht, anchored in the lagoon of Totoya Island in the Yasayasamoala Group of the Lau Islands. In June 2011, I was part of an expedition team from the Wildlife Conservation Society, Pacific Blue Foundation, Waitt Institute, Scripps Institute of Oceanography and Wetlands International-Oceania to survey Totoya’s Sacred Reef.[Editor’s note: See blog from the 2011 expedition at: http://newswatch.nationalgeographic.com/2011/06/08/expedition-to-the-sacred-reef-of-fiji-6/]

In honour of World Ocean’s Day, Roko Josefa Cinavilakeba, the high chief of the Yasayasamoala group, redeclared Totoya’s Daveta Tabu protected. In was indeed a great day for the communities of Totoya and those here to participate in the experience.

But time flies fast and furious in the Pacific. Flash forward two years and I’m back to Totoya again, this time on board the Khaled bin Sultan Living Oceans Foundation’s research vessel, the Golden Shadow. In 2008, I wrote a letter to the Foundation, inviting them to come to Fiji as part of their Global Expedition (http://www.sciencewithoutborders.org/science-without-borders/) to investigate the major threats and impacts to coral reefs around the world, with a view to providing data to help innovate new management solutions. It only took them five years to respond – and now, here we are, floating in the remote waters of Fiji’s Lau Province.

The Living Oceans Foundation brings a wealth of experience, knowledge and scientific tools to study coral reef systems, including the ability to map large sections of reefs which provides important information on natural resource inventories for management. When I approached other organizations in Fiji about where the Living Oceans Foundation should focus these efforts, almost unanimously people said Lau. The remoteness and limited options for transport to Lau makes it an unusually challenging place to conduct repeated surveys to assess changes in reef resources – unless you have access to a superyacht, that is.And thanks to Prince Khaled bin Sultan of the Kingdom of Saudia Arabia, we do.

I’ve suggested to the research team to resurvey locations on Totoya, Matuku and Kabara that were previously surveyed in the 1990s and 2000s by researchers from the University of Newcastle in England, as well as the sites that we surveyed inside and adjacent to Totoya Sacred Reef in 2011.

In the meantime, myself, Ron Vave of the University of the South Pacific, and Willie Saladrau of the Fiji Department of Fisheries are searching far and wide to assess the status of sea cucumbers in this region, which are being increasingly exploited for cash income by local communities. Sea cucumbers are easy targets – with limited mobility, they can’t get away from a keen freediver. And the perception is that they are just money sitting on the reef. In reality, sea cucumbers have an important ecosystem function to regulate the amount of nutrients in coral reef sediments, which likely keeps algal blooms under control (as I described in my blog on our surveys of Western Bua: http://wcsfiji.org.fj/coral-reef-resilience-surveys-in-western-bua/). So far, Willie, Ron and I have not had much luck finding the critters – but we are hopeful that some are still out there to sustain the livelihoods of the local communities.

Duty calls – time to get back in the water and then on to a meke session in Tovu village.

Moce mada.

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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.