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Making the most of sea cucumbers

An i-Kiribati fisher showing off carefully processed sea cucumbers (© SW Purcell)
An i-Kiribati fisher showing off carefully processed sea cucumbers
© SW Purcell

Looking like shrivelled giant slugs, it's a wonder why dried sea cucumbers attract such high prices in Chinese seafood markets. They are one of five key luxury foods necessary in Chinese festive dishes, and some species can retail for over US$1,000 per kilogram dried. Fished for centuries by artisanal methods along Indo-Pacific coasts, these taxonomic cousins of starfish and sea urchins are under threat from overfishing.

After being hand-collected, sea cucumbers are cut, gutted, salted, cooked, smoked and sun-dried to a non-perishable, exportable product called 'beche-de-mer' or 'trepang'. Unfortunately, much potential income is lost by Pacific Island communities through poor processing methods, due to the lack of information and skills of village-based fishers in postharvest processing. In response, in order to improve the incomes of remote island communities, fishers are being provided with support to enable them to process sea cucumbers to the high quality demanded for export, particularly to China.

Improving postharvest processing

Conducting socio-economic surveys of sea cucumber fishers in Tonga (© SW Purcell)
Conducting socio-economic surveys of sea cucumber fishers in Tonga
© SW Purcell

A 2012 scoping study, funded by the Australian Centre for International Agricultural Research (ACIAR), found that a high proportion of fishers in Tonga, Kiribati and Fiji improperly cut their sea cucumbers, undercooked or overcooked them, burnt them by drying them over a fire, and were unaware of proper salting and drying methods. Prices received by fishers from exporters varied by up to four times within and among the countries surveyed, due largely to differences in processing quality.

As a result of the study, which concluded that postharvest support would have a substantial impact on fishers' incomes, Southern Cross University has been funded by ACIAR to implement a four-year project, starting in May 2013. The project will work to provide information to fishers, by way of a village-level manual and training DVDs translated into local languages, and village-based workshops to train fishers in best practices for processing sea cucumbers into high quality beche-de-mer. These methods comprise the optimal place on the body to cut each species for gutting, number of days to salt the animals and how much salt to use, water temperature for cooking and optimal cooking duration for each species, practices for smoke-curing, new techniques for drying the product, and how to store the animals for trade.

Challenges to technology adoption

Left: a well-processed Leopardfish sea cucumber. Right: a poorly cut and poorly processed sea cucumber (© SW Purcell)
Left: a well-processed Leopardfish sea cucumber. Right: a poorly cut and poorly processed sea cucumber
© SW Purcell

The remoteness of many island communities that harvest and process sea cucumber will be a challenge for the project. Broad adoption of the technology will need fisher-to-fisher dissemination of the processing methods, which is expected to occur naturally. Improving incomes will also rely on competitiveness in the local supply chains so that fishers can attract higher prices from local buyers for higher quality sea cucumbers. That will require Department of Fishery agencies in each country to provide fishers with contact details of buyers and pay careful attention to promoting diverse buyer networks through export licensing.

An important objective of the project will be to test whether these interventions have a measurable impact on livelihoods. 'Before-and-after' socio-economic surveys of village fishers will test the consequences of interventions for fishers and their families. For example, by revealing which processing methods were most commercially viable and adoptable by fishers and which community types gained most from the information, support and training, future investment and development programmes in the Pacific Islands, South-East Asia and the Indian Ocean can best target their activities. The impact testing will also show whether such support to fishers results in them spending more time adding value to wild captures and less time fishing - thus, indirectly impacting resource sustainability.

Promoting sustainability

High-value beche-de-mer on sale in jars in Hong Kong (© SW Purcell)
High-value beche-de-mer on sale in jars in Hong Kong
© SW Purcell

According to the project team, improving postharvest processing must be coupled closely with improved management and governance of sea cucumber fisheries; training and support for improved processing could, therefore, be presented as a 'trade off' for reduced access to the resource. Two recent workshops for the Pacific and Indian Oceans, coordinated by the UN's Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), mentored fishery managers from 26 countries in the management of sea cucumber fisheries. Agencies such as the Western Indian Ocean Marine Science Association (WIOMSA) and the Secretariat of the Pacific Community (SPC) have also been working to help countries to improve management plans and governance structures in sea cucumber fisheries. However, few development projects have focused on improving the postharvest processing of sea cucumbers, due in part to a limited knowledge base. Therefore, if fishers are going to be persuaded to reduce the number of sea cucumbers they harvest, initiatives to improve fisheries management need to progress alongside initiatives to improve processing methods, to ensure that fishers earn a substantially higher income from a smaller harvest.

Written by: Steven W Purcell, Southern Cross University

Date published: April 2013

 

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