BIG DEMAND FOR SEA CUCUMBERS

“Yes, we used to have a lot of sea cucumbers in our coastal areas.  They have been depleted because of over-harvesting.” – Dr. Rafael D. Guerrero, academician at the National Academy of Science and Technology

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Sea cucumbers – those marine invertebrates with the shape of the vegetable fruit that they are named after – may be weird marine creatures that look like they are from outer space but to some people, they are delectable. 

Across Asia, sea cucumbers – which are echinoderms just like starfish and sea urchins – have long been a staple in peoples’ diets, mainly in soups, stews and stir-fries.  They are highly nutritious; they are described as “an ideal tonic food” as they provide more protein and less fat than most foods.  “Like tofu, it is flavorless but absorbs the flavors of its surrounding seasonings and foods,” wrote an epicurean.

Generally, sea cucumbers are sold as “trepang,” which is easier to store and handle than the fresh product.  They are valued as an exotic delicacy and a flavorful condiment for soups, noodles and other dishes. 

In some parts of Europe, whole bêche-de-mer can be stuffed with a filling of pork, corn starch, and chopped fried fish.  Cooked fresh and quickly on a hot griddle, espardenyes are served with olive, sea salt and a squeeze of lemon in Spain.  They can also be prepared as salads and eaten fresh minus the internal organs.  

More than just food

To some people, sea cucumbers are more than just food.  In fact, there are people who believe sea animals possess some aphrodisiac powers.   The reason for this belief is the peculiar reaction of the creature on being kneaded or disturbed slightly with fingers. It swells and stiffens and a jet of water is released from one end. This behavior is similar to the erection and subsequent ejaculation of the male sexual organ.

By the way, people in Palau use the sea cucumber to protect their feet when walking in the reef. They squeeze the sea cucumber until it squirts out sticky threads, which they put on their feet. Even though this practice may sound harsh, the sea cucumber returns to the reef unharmed.

As an archipelago, the Philippines is blessed with a high diversity of sea cucumbers which inhabit its wide seagrass beds, soft bottom areas, and reefs.  It is home to about 200 species of sea cucumbers, of which 40 species are commercially important.

Although they are distributed throughout the country, most of them can be found off the coastal waters of Zamboanga City; Zamboanga del Sur; Zamboanga del Norte; Basilan Province; Jolo, Sulu; South Cotabato; Surigao del Norte; Villareal and Catbalogan, Samar; Negros Occidental; Cebu; Calatagan, Bangas; Polilio Island, Quezon; Masinloc, Zambales; San Vicente, Cagayan; San Fernando, La Union; Bolinao, Bani and Alaminos, Pangasinan.

“The country has been a major exporter of the processed trepang for the last several centuries and the trade has been responsible for the prosperity of the Sulu Sultanate in southern Philippines during the 18th and 19th centuries,” said a document published by the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO).

In other parts of the country, the harvesting and processing of sea cucumbers has been a source of income for many Filipino families.  As Naga, the publication of the Kuala Lumpur-based WorldFish Center, reported in 1987: “The steady demand for sea cucumbers from other countries has made sea cucumber harvesting an attractive source of income for many Filipinos.  In many islands and coastal villages, the income derived from it constitutes a significant portion of a family’s livelihood.”

As stated earlier, sea cucumbers are well-known as food and are highly recognized for their ecological and medicinal values.  “They are considered to be of high value for their big demand in local and foreign markets as seafood items and source of pharmaceuticals,” wrote Dr. Rafael D. Guerrero III in his monthly column, “Straight from the Farm.”

Aside from food, there’s also an emerging market for the use of sea cucumbers in the pharmaceutical and cosmetic industries. Common medicinal uses of sea cucumber in China include treating: weakness, impotence, debility of the aged, constipation due to intestinal dryness, and frequent urination.

In jeopardy

As demand continues to escalate, the supply dwindles – to the extent that their population is now in jeopardy.  In fact, the Philippines has been dislodged as the top producer; it ranks now as the world’s eighth sea cucumber producer with an annual production of less than 900 tons.

The Laguna-based Philippine Council for Agriculture, Aquatic and Natural Resources Research and Development (PCAARRD) traced the dismal production to unregulated harvesting and trade.  “The bulk of Philippine sea cucumber products is undersized lower-value species, poorly processed and lowly priced,” it said.

“With overfishing, there has been a decline in the populations of sea cucumbers in our coastal waters where they dwell in the bottom of seagrass beds and coral reefs feeding on organic matter,” wrote Dr. Guerrero, who was former director of the defunct Philippine Council for Aquatic and Marine Research and Development.

The overharvesting of sea cucumber is due to its big demand and high price abroad.  “A kilo of dried sea cucumbers can sell as much as P4,500 in the local market and P12,000 in the export market,” Dr. Guerrero said. 

Banned

So much so that the Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources (BFAR) is banning the catching and trading of three species of sea cucumbers, namely: Holothuria fuscogilvaH. nobilis, and H. whitmaei.

Philippine Daily Inquirer’s Yolanda Sotelo reported that the three species were included in the list of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES).

The banning, according to BFAR Director Eduardo Gongona, the banning would include “fishing, taking, catching, gathering, selling, purchasing, processing, transporting, exporting, forwarding or shipping out.”

The banning is a good move and a good start.  All over the world, sea cucumber stocks are under intense fishing pressure, according to a recent FAO report. Most high value commercial species have been depleted. 

In Asia and the Pacific region, the most sought-after species are largely depleted.  The region generates some 20,000 to 40,000 tons per year, which are exported to China and other Asian markets.  

“The fast pace of development of sea cucumber fisheries to supply growing international demand is placing most fisheries and many sea cucumber species at risk,” pointed out the FAO report, Sea Cucumbers: A Global Review of Fisheries and Trade.

Good news

But there is good news. The PCAARRD launched a program that would restore the viable economic activity.  In 2016, it established a sustainable and globally competitive sea cucumber industry which provides equitable economic benefits to various stakeholders and maintains the productivity and biodiversity of the sea cucumber industry in the country.

Two approaches were developed to attain the goal.  The first approach was to increase production of premium-grade size sea cucumbers through public-private partnership coupled with grow-out production systems engaging commercial and local fishers with the support of the local government.

Through this approach, the country is now able to culture sandfish, Holothuria scabra (a species of sea cucumber) in the hatchery.  Low cost ocean nursery systems were developed to reduce the cost and diversity systems for juvenile production.

“The integration of sandfish culture technology to existing marine aquaculture facilities and the availability of low-cost nursery systems opened opportunities for its grow-out culture,” PCAARRD reports.  “Sandfish culture may potentially reduce the harvesting pressure of the wild sandfish population and allow them to rest and recuperate.”

The second approach was to produce high quality trepang.  In fact, the Philippines is now able to produce high-quality trepang.  The technology package for postharvest processing was developed; it produces Class A premium grade trepang with reduced microbial content, improved shelf life and no foul odor. 

“The postharvest processing line is composed of a degutting table, mechanical cleaner and hybrid dryer that is being tested in coastal communities,” the PCAARRD says.  Initial profitability analysis has shown that using the hybrid dryer alone, gross income from dried sea cucumber could increase by 77% due to improvements in quality of the final product. 

Given this recent development, there is a bright future for sea cucumbers in the Philippines.  – ###

(Photos taken from the net)