Filipino scientists lead cultivation of sea cucumbers in coastal areas

Iya Gozum

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Filipino scientists lead cultivation of sea cucumbers in coastal areas

LEAD. Dr. Annette Meñez holds two sandfish at the sea ranch in Barangay Victory, Bolinao, Pangasinan, on June 19, 2024.

Iya Gozum/Rappler

Due to the demand for these luxury food delicacies, sea cucumber fisheries suffered from a boom and bust in the mid-1990s, says marine scientist Marie Antonette Juinio-Meñez

PANGASINAN, Philippines – A sandfish (Holothuria scabra) lies dormant among the seagrasses of the municipal waters in the sea ranch in Barangay Victory in Bolinao, Pangasinan.

Its fat, cylindrical body grows its broadest in the middle. Its skin has small bumps and faded dark lines. And while it looks slimy, the sandfish is soft and silky to the touch.

Despite its appearance, the sandfish and many other species of the sea cucumber around the world had carved their place in history as luxury food delicacies in Asian cuisine. Sea cucumbers are dried and sold as beche-de-mer.

The most expensive one, the Japanese cucumber, could cost up to $3,500 per kilo, while the sandfish, like those found in the waters of Bolinao, could sell for $1,600 per kilo.

After wild stocks suffered a decline through the years, marine scientists have been trying to restock sandfish and engage coastal communities and small fishers.

It “was designed to minimize social conflict, diversify livelihood options and grant preferential use rights to small-scale fishers,” said marine scientist Marie Antonette Juinio-Meñez in a 2012 study.

RANCH. The sandfish’s skin glints above water and under the sun. Photo by Iya Gozum/Rappler
Boom and bust

Home to over a hundred species of sea cucumbers, with at least 47 species commercially processed and sold, the Philippines was one of the top producers of dried sea cucumbers in the mid-1980s to mid-1990s, Meñez told Rappler.

But “because they are easy to harvest and deplete,” Meñez said sea cucumber fisheries suffered from a boom and bust in the mid-1990s. The trend had shown a steady decline ever since.

“The decline is due to overexploitation, driven by very high market demand and price from China primarily,” Meñez said.

“Not only has the total volume of export decreased but also the composition and value. Lower value species including small individuals are harvested because the high value species are already depleted.”

In 2010, the International Union for Conservation of Nature assessed the sandfish on its Red List of Threatened Species as endangered.

Meñez is the coordinator for the University of the Philippines Marine Science Institute’s (UP MSI) sea cucumber research project, which is being supported by the Australian Centre for International Agricultural Research (ACIAR). The Australian government has been supporting the first efforts in sea ranching in Victory since 2007.

Animal, Fish, Sea Life
JUVENILES. Several juveniles in the hatchery at UP Marine Science Institute’s Bolinao Marine Laboratory. Photo by Iya Gozum/Rappler
Culturing sandfish

Currently, Meñez and her team cultures sea cucumber larvae and post-settled juveniles in the hatchery of the UP MSI’s Bolinao Marine Laboratory.

The juveniles, measuring 4 to 10 millimeters, are released into floating hapas (cage made from fine mesh) for two cycles, with one cycle lasting 21 days. Once they weigh at least three grams individually, they are released into ocean nursery pens.

When they are big enough – which is around 30 grams– they are released into the sea ranch, where they are free ranging. Sea ranching intends to sell the sea cucumbers reared into the market while also restocking wild populations. The whole process takes months.

In 2013, the Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources released an order to regulate the size of sea cucumbers for collection and trade. The government fines the trade, collection, and transport of undersized sea cucumbers.

Aquatic, Water, Plant
GLEANING. Among the seagrass in the shallow municipal waters of Victory lie sandfish that could be easily collected. Photo by Iya Gozum/Rappler

Aside from Bolinao, Meñez’s team is also assisting in the restocking of sandfish in Infanta, also in Pangasinan. Outside the province, they have started establishing sea ranches in Zambales, Iloilo, Eastern Samar, and Misamis Oriental.

Meñez emphasized that the approach they’re pursuing here in the Philippines is community-based sea ranching. They partner with local governments and people organizations; in Victory, they have engaged with fisherfolk associations trained to monitor juveniles and guard the sea ranch.

“When you talk about fisheries, they only think about fish,” Meñez said in a mix of Filipino and English during a tour inside the hatchery. “They forget other fishery resources like invertebrates.”

Guarding the ranch

Among the seagrass and the idle sea cucumbers stood a guardhouse on stilts.

Seven members of the Asosasyon ng mga Maliliit na Mangingisda work as stewards of the sea ranch. Each member gets one 24/7 shift per week. When they’re not guarding the ranch, they get by through fishing in their municipal waters – a territory where small fisherfolk can exercise their preferential use rights over commercial fishers.

Among them is Roger Corbillon, 50, a fisherman who has seen the depletion of fish in their municipal waters as the years went by.

Once a week, he works in the guardhouse of the sea ranch to monitor for people – those outside the fishers’ associations and people’s organizations engaged in the project – who might glean sea cucumbers from inside the ranch.

As a fisherman and environmental advocate, Corbillon said ecosystems of seagrasses, mangroves, and corals are all interconnected.

“Ganoon kasi ang takbo ng ecosystem natin,” he said. “Kaya kung mapangalagaan natin ang seagrass, mangrove…corals, dadami po ‘yung isda.” (That’s how our ecosystem works. If we can take care of the seagrass, mangroves, and corals, the fish will increase.)

Architecture, Building, Outdoors
STEWARDS. Members of a small fisherfolk organization guard the sea ranch in Victory. Photo by Iya Gozum/Rappler

Corbillon and the other fisherfolk members manning the guardhouse receive a P300 allowance every shift from the local government.

This is not enough, said Corbillon, for this kind of work that lasts for a full 24 hours.

“Pero ang iniisip ko kasi, hindi ‘yung kung ano ‘yung allowance kundi…tungkol sa kalikasan,” the fisherman said.

“Gusto kong mapanatili ‘yung kung ano ‘yung mayroon ngayon at makinabang din ang buong komunidad.

(But I don’t think of the allowance; I think about the environment. I want to maintain what we have now and have the community benefit from it.)

Corbillon said the locals in their village had eaten sandfish and sold them to middlemen before. As the commercial trade of sandfish can be a lucrative business, will municipal fishers be able to cut down the middlemen to earn more?

Meñez said this could only be feasible “if the small fishers can collect higher volumes of sea cucumbers and aggregate them to process and sell to the market.”

“Sa ngayon, masyadong kaunti ang nako-collect ng fishers from the wild,” she said. “This is true in many coastal rural areas in the country.” (As of now, fishers collect only a small quantity from the wild.)

At this stage, sandfish mariculture is considered a supplemental livelihood. It still has a long way to go before becoming a main source of income for coastal communities.

As they continue their work, the team is now piloting another community-based sandfish culture in Santiago Island, Pangasinan. And the sea ranch in Victory remains the best example ofthis model – sustained for years already – to grant preferential use rights to small fishers like Corbillon. –

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Iya Gozum

Iya Gozum covers the environment, agriculture, and science beats for Rappler.