Written by Sofia Perez
It looks like a vegetable, what comes out of its anus is cleaner than what goes into its mouth, you can break it in half without it dying, it breathes through its butt, and it can expel its inner organs…what is it? While your first guess may be a spineless octopus-like alien with a weird digestive system, the truth is that this animal can be found in the ocean of our very own planet. Not only that, but all the sand you have ever walked on has likely passed through one of these wondrous creatures, as they process more than 300lb. of sediment a year. So…what is it?
The answer is a sea cucumber, Holothuria Scabra, one of the massively underrated housekeepers of the sea, which plays a vital ecological role in coral reef ecosystems all over the world. Like most humble servants, sea cucumbers were never known for the gaudy visual display that other sea creatures boast. Instead, they possess the simple monotonous color of a cucumber(hence their affectionate title).
The oddities of sea cucumbers don’t end there. While they don’t possess the attractive colors and patterns of other fish or invertebrates, they do have some unique talents. Their digestive system is a massively important filter system and serves to prevent algal blooms, improve the growth of subtropical seagrass beds, and buffer reefs from the effects of ocean acidification. They typically spend their days buried in silt, emerging at night to feed by sifting through the sand for edible particles.
In addition to their ecological aid, sea cucumbers have also been shown to aid human health. Their skin contains a chemical called fucosylated glycosaminoglycan, which can be used to treat arthritis, prevent blood clots, and even prevent cancer.
For this reason, they are often used in Chinese traditional medicine and are even considered a delicacy among the high class. Usually, they are eviscerated, boiled, dried, and packaged in ornate boxes. Then, once purchased, they are put in soups.
However, due to China’s recent economic boom, the middle class is growing increasingly more affluent. This is causing the demand for sea cucumbers to increase at a rate that the market can’t keep up with. Traditional fishing methods no longer produce the yield required by the Chinese market. Therefore, people fishing for sea cucumbers in the wild are diving deeper and deeper, sometimes taking juvenile sea cucumbers out of desperation. Needless to say, this has detrimental effects in marine ecosystems in which sea cucumbers are fundamental.
Fortunately, there is a solution! Sea cucumber aquaculture farms have begun to sprout up. For the sea cucumber trade this offers a sustainable option for fishers, consumers, and the environment. The economy has moved away from environmental exploitation and towards social and environmental development.
In order to get a better idea of what sea cucumber farming is like, I interviewed Mr. Razafimamonjiraibe from an aquaculture farm in Madagascar. He works with the organization BlueVentures, an NGO which seeks to assist coastal communities to reduce their economic dependence on resource extraction in their ecosystems and fisheries by providing access to, and technical support for, their adoption of alternative income activities. Community-based sea-cucumber aquaculture is one livelihood that Blue Ventures has been developing alongside coastal communities in southwest Madagascar.
In Blue Ventures Community Based Sea Cucumber Farm, only one type of sea cucumber is farmed, the Holothuria Scabra. In a Chinese market, one kilogram of Holothuria Scabra will fetch $300 US. While this is expensive, it is still nowhere near the upper limit, which is a dizzying $3500 US for the Apostichopus japonicus. Apart from these, 70 other species of sea cucumber are commercially viable, more than 30 of which are commercially exploited in Madagascar. In fact, the sea cucumber catch worldwide is estimated at 20,000 tons per year in dry weight, or 400,000 tons alive, which corresponds to 1.2 billion sea cucumbers.
Blue Ventures Community Based Sea Cucumber Farm is relatively small, consisting of 2 farms of 8 hectares combined. The farm is near the coast, in shallow marine water, as well as near the village in which the farmers live. Otherwise it is quite remote, making any transportation difficult. Because of this, any setbacks that occur on the farm can have a large impact on the community.
Before harvesting your first batch of sea cucumbers, you must wait a year. Using this farm’s model, you can harvest every two months with a return rate of 75% a year. Unfortunately though, challenges have often caused Blue Ventures Community Based Sea Cucumber Farmers to start completely anew. In 2014, the cyclone Haruna destroyed the farm’s infrastructure, and in 2015 bacterial ulceration syndrome, also called skin ulceration disease, resulted in the removal of materials and the reassessment of the farm model.
However, the farm has also provided increased prosperity among the local population and there have already been changes as a result of the aquaculture program, with more children being sent to school, the improved maintenance of homes, the use of stone construction as opposed to wood, and the inclusion of the majority of the community in a savings group. A health program was also created in 2007 due to limited access to health and family planning services. This is due to BlueVentures’ prioritization of human health. This people-health-environment approach is based on a circular view of sustainability, as a healthier community of farmers will be more effective on the job.
There are still many research gaps in regards to the effects of the aquaculture farm on the nearby coral reefs in Madagascar, but in the coming years it is expected to become an increasingly popular method of farming, as it is sustainable environmentally, socially, and economically. While Blue Ventures Community Based Sea Cucumber Farm is only 2 lots of 8 hectares combined, a private partner of the farm, Indian Ocean Trepang, owns 200 hectares. It can be assumed that with continued efforts to harvest sustainably, repopulate reefs, and put the necessary laws & regulations in place, the wild sea cucumber population locally will begin to recover.
It is through conservation efforts like this one that these impressive creatures can be preserved without hurting the economy or prosperity of the local people. All this for the humble sea cucumber, the underrated housekeepers of the sea, the spineless slug-like filter feeder inching slowly along the sand. They are expertly camouflaged, astoundingly simple, and yet starkly fundamental.
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