Aphrodisiac market ‘boom-bust’

CAPTION: Tonga invertebrate assessment 2012, Tonga, Kalo Pakoa.

Pacific communities stand to double their income from marketing sea cucumber to the booming middle-class Chinese markets, but only if they can avoid the current ‘boom-bust’ cycles of harvest.

Sea cucumbers are widely regarded in China as a delicacy at wedding and other festivals, and are prized for their properties as an aphrodisiac. Skyrocketing prices have encouraged coastal communities from Pacific Islands to sell all they can find.

Over-exploitation of the sea cucumber fishery was discussed at the Pacific countries’ Heads of Fisheries meeting at the Secretariat of Pacific Community (SPC) headquarters in Noumea, New Caledonia this week (4–8 March).

SPC Fisheries Development Officer Michael Sharp says over-enthusiastic fishers are leaving some fisheries so depleted they struggled to recover.

‘It’s boom-bust, boom-bust. But each “boom” is lower than the previous, because the sea cucumber fishery doesn’t get a chance to fully recover,’ he says.

‘The Chinese like to dice them up in soups,’ he says. ‘It is widely recognised that sea cucumbers have health benefits, so Chinese faith in the animal is not entirely misplaced.’

SPC studied the sea cucumber fisheries of five Pacific Island countries: Papua New Guinea, Fiji, Vanuatu, Solomon Islands and Tonga.

The long-run average annual value generated from sea cucumber sales along the domestic supply chains in these countries is conservatively estimated as USD 17 million, a significant boost for low-income coastal communities. The catch in these five countries is 80 per cent of the South Pacific trade.

The SPC study found that this income could be doubled if fisheries management agencies can regulate fishers to harvest this resource at more sustainable levels.

‘Over-exploitation of high-value sea cucumber species, like sandfish and white teatfish, has resulted in governments closing off fishing areas to allow the stock to recover,’ says Crick Carleton from Nautilus.

Consultants. His study, funded by the Australian Centre for International Agricultural Research, sought to identify management measures for this important fishery.

Dr Steven Purcell from Southern Cross University also spoke at the meeting. He says a recently published global analysis of sea cucumber fisheries found they were under similar pressures worldwide.

This month, the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) is set to list a small number of exploited species as threatened with extinction due to large, widespread declines in wild stocks.

‘These tend to be the higher-value sea cucumber species,’ he says. ‘And the listing will likely have ramifications for managing these species in the Pacific.’

The sea cucumber can be a steady money-spinner in the Pacific, but it has to be better controlled and better managed. Governments of Pacific countries need to resist the lure of a ‘quick buck’, in order to build a stable industry with long-term prospects.

‘The average volume of the harvest would be much the same as now, but exporters would get far more for higher-quality products,’ says Mr Carleton. ‘It’s about management and exploiting the full potential of the market.’

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