Davao, 01 September 2009. Sea cucumbers may be weird marine creatures but to some people, they are delectable.
Across Asia, they have long been a staple in peoples’ diets, mainly in soups, stews and stir-fries. They are highly nutritious – 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, cornstarch 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. Like their terrestrial cousins, sea cucumbers can — unsurprisingly, perhaps — also be pickled. In some instances, they are prepared as salads and eaten fresh minus the internal organs.
In other parts of the world, the internal organs of some species like Stichopus variegatus are also fermented for 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.
In the Philippines, sea cucumbers are found in burrows, seagrass beds or sandy areas with large amounts of coral rubbles. Some are found in waters of up to 20 meters deep. These 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.
For almost a century, the harvesting and processing of sea cucumbers has been a source of income for many Filipino families. As Naga, the publication of the 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.”
Today, sea cucumber is a multi-million dollar industry. In the United States, price rate of dried sea cucumber is pegged at US$180 to US$250 per kilogram. The Philippines is home to 100 species of sea cucumbers, of which 31 are commercially important. “There is a big export market for sea cucumbers particularly for Hong Kong, China, Korea and Japan,” says Dr. Rafael D. Guerrero III, former executive director of the Laguna-based Philippine Council for Aquatic and Marine Research and Development (PCAMRD).
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. As demand continues to escalate, the supply dwindles -- to the extent that their population is now in jeopardy.
Sea cucumber stocks are under intense fishing pressure throughout the world, according to a recent report released by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO). Most high value commercial species have been depleted. In Asia and the Pacific, 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. Most of them come from Indonesia, Papua New Guinea and the Philippines.
“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. Sea cucumbers are utilized almost exclusively as an export commodity. This huge export makes the population of sea cucumbers in the country to decline significantly. “Yes, we used to have a lot of sea cucumbers in our coastal areas,” admits Dr. Guerrero. “They have been depleted because of over-harvesting.”
But the good news is: There are now on-going projects for the artificial breeding and culture of sea cucumbers being conducted by the Marine Science Institute (MSI) of the University of the Philippines (UP) in Bolinao, Pangasinan. In Mindanao, the UP is also conducting pond culture of sea cucumber in Davao City, in cooperation with a private entity, the Alson Aquaculture.
In addition, the Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources (BFAR) has recently established the country’s first-ever commercial hatchery for sea cucumber to enhance massive raising of the commodity nationwide. The hatchery produces 60,000 “juvenile” sea cucumbers every month, which can be distributed to farmers who are interested in culturing them in fish ponds, or for sea ranching (stocking them in a designated space in the sea for gathering later).
“Sea cucumber is a good material for sea ranching because, based on its behavior, it can travel just one to two meters a day and about one kilometer a year,” the BFAR said in a statement. The mortality rate of cultured juveniles is high. But once they weigh 20 grams and placed in the seafloor or in ponds, the survival rate is almost 100 percent, according to Dr. Westly Rosario, executive director of the BFAR’s National Fisheries Research Development Institute. In a recent report, Northern Luzon news reporter Yolanda Fuertes wrote: “Aside from the initial cost of the juvenile sea cucumbers (P5 each), they are not fed commercial food, depending only on organic matter in the culture pond for nourishment (salinity should be at least 20 parts per thousand) or the sea tidal flats which are their natural habitats.”
Dr. Guerrero said that sea farming of sea cucumbers “can be a profitable and environmentally-friendly livelihood industry for coastal communities.” The PCAMRD, a line agency of the Department of Science and Technology, is supporting such kind of projects.
A study conducted at BFAR showed that it takes six months for the sea cucumber to reach 250 grams, the desired weight in the export market. One hectare of fishpond can accommodate 10,000 sea cucumbers. This means that after six months, a farmer can harvest at least 2.5 tons.
But before they can be exported, they have to be dried first – shrunk to about 10 percent of their live weight. So, the marketable harvest would only be 250 kilograms. At P4,000 per kilogram, the farmer earns a whooping P1 million from his one-hectare pond in six months.