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.