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Research boosts selling prices for Pacific Islands' sea cucumbers


Sharlene King
10 August 2017

The sea cucumber export industry in the Pacific Islands is experiencing improved weekly income, with the potential to significantly improve the lives of thousands of village fishers, thanks to a Southern Cross University research project funded by the Australian Centre for International Agricultural Research.

Dried sea cucumber exports (known as bêche-de-mer) have been a major source of income for Pacific Island nations, with an export value of $20 to $50 million a year to the Chinese market.

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Dr Steven Purcell, from the University’s National Marine Science Centre in Coffs Harbour, said harvesting and selling sea cucumbers provided a vital source of income for rural Pacific Islanders using artisanal fishing methods.

“Wild harvests provide a source of income to more than 300,000 small-scale fishers in the western Pacific but returns to fishers have been less than optimal, largely due to poor knowledge of proper post-harvesting handling and processing methods,” Dr Purcell said.

“This problem also contributes to a need to fish large quantities of sea cucumbers to meet economic needs and wastes the potential value of these resources for national economies.”

Mr Watisoni Lalavanua, Fisheries Officer, Fiji Country Program with the Wildlife Conservation Society, said baseline interviews showed that 59 per cent of fishers had not received any training and only eight per cent of fishers had undergone training by a foreign export agent.

“This showed a lack of capacity that fishers had in terms of processing sea cucumbers into quality bêche-de-mer,” Mr Lalavanua said.

Working together with national fishery organisations in Kiribati, Tonga and Fiji, the Southern Cross University-led project implemented a training program for fishers, including user-friendly manuals, training videos and village-based workshops.

In collaboration with scientists at James Cook University and the University of Wollongong, the project’s research phase is critically examining the consequences of the training.

“What we found is that close to 80 per cent of the fishers who attended the workshops have changed their post-harvest processing methods and many have reported saving time in processing their catch”, Dr Purcell said.

“The research is showing real improvements in the methods used by fishers and the quality of the product for export. Statistical analyses of the interview data are helping to understand the impact of the training on the weekly income of these islanders and their psychological wellbeing.”

Across 22 species of sea cucumbers sold in Fiji, Mr Lalavanua said: “the reported selling prices of processed bêche-de-mer by fishers trained through the project’s interventions, averaged 45 per cent higher than the same species of bêche-de-mer sold by untrained fishers.”

Dr Purcell said one fisher on Fiji’s Taveuni Island revealed he was able to set up a small kiosk in his village with the extra money he was making from the better quality bêche-de-mer, after applying the best-practice methods shown in the training manuals and workshops.

Following the success of the training program, a French language version of training manual is being printed for dissemination to French-speaking Pacific Island countries including New Caledonia, Wallis and Futuna, French Polynesia and some parts of Vanuatu.

“The results so far have been very positive, and are showing the potential to significantly improve the lives of thousands of village fishers,” Dr Purcell said.

Mr Lalavanua said the Wildlife Conservation Society in Fiji was adopting the same manual and training video to conduct more village-based training on postharvest for sea cucumbers fishers in Bua Province.

The research in Fiji has involved collaboration with researchers from the Wildlife Conservation Society and from Partners in Community Development Fiji.