Treasures of the deep

Caption:WWF South Pacific field officer Koli Musudroka diving surveying beachdemer populations in Mali waters. Photo: SUPPLIED. 

Is the sea cucumber population of Mali district waters in Macuata province thriving or are these treasures dwindling fast because of the pressures of overharvesting?

It’s a question that divers, part of the Marine Biological Survey team from WWF-South Pacific tried to establish during a two weeks research expedition in Mali waters recently.

Savenaca Mara weighs a beach de mer on the island

Savenaca Mara weighs a beach de mer on the island

Data gathered and currently being analysed will influence the formation of a sea cucumber fisheries management plan for the district. Survey team leader, Alfred Ralifo of WWF-South Pacific said the fresh data will then be contrasted with that collected in 2004 by the Secretariat of the Pacific Community (SPC) to determine the vitality of sea cucumber populations over a period of time.

Thanks to advances in technology, the WWF survey was guided by the Global Positioning System position of the Secretariat Pacific Community survey points.

Sea cucumbers are commercially known as bêche-de-mer, also referred to as reef filters, and have been a major source of livelihoods in Pacific island countries for generations. In Mali district, three of the four villages (Nakawaga, Vesi and Ligaulevu), stricken with land unavailability, are heavily reliant on marine resources to sustain and meet, food and income needs. These include children’s education expenses, medical as well as daily household needs.

Used fresh or dried in various cuisines, demand for this food especially from offshore buyers in the East and South East Asian markets where it is considered a delicacy has increased harvesting pressures on this resource.

Anecdotal evidence includes the testimonials of some divers in local media stating they make as much as $250 from a night of diving. For Mali, a management plan will protect future income and food security and contribute to poverty alleviation.

“We need to see how much they have been extracting from the reef and should they continue at the current rate of extraction or is there a need to apply some management strategy – these are things to consider,” Ralifo said.

“The plan therefore will allow the community to determine a quota system for harvesting, identify areas of the qoliqoli they can harvest from and areas that must be declared a tabu.

“It may also cover the type of harvesting that is prohibited for example scuba diving and the need to enforce these laws.”

The sea cucumber management plan is a thread supporting the greater objective of trialing district level management of Mali’s fishing grounds through the “Building Effective Community Driven Governance Systems in Mali District to Enhance Community Access to Food, Income Generating Opportunities and Livelihoods,” funded by the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade of Australia through its Fiji Community Development Programme.

The approach will be and is being slowly introduced into the three other districts (Dreketi, Sasa & Macuata), as the work on Mali progresses, so they are given the workable actions lessons.

Goals of the project include addressing poverty alleviation with food and income security. Awareness concerning the importance of sustainably managing sea cucumbers is periodically carried out by fish wardens in the district but may need to cover external fisher-folk who also harvest from within Mali fishing grounds.

“It’s obvious that demand for bêche-de-mer is high so the importance of analyzing the outcomes of this survey to determine their status as a species,” Ralifo said.

“And while we determine their status at sea we will also be looking at the supply chain so any plan that is formulated is a holistic one addressing all stakeholders.”


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