Improving income of Pacific Island fishers through improved fishery processing

Overview of Impact

beche de mere

The harvesting and trade of sea cucumbers (in dried form known as bêche-de-mer) is a vital source of income for (up to 300,000) rural Pacific Islanders and an important export economy estimated to be worth between AU$20 and $50 million.  Despite a 200-year history of trade, few of traditional fishers have ever received formal training and or had knowledge of optimal harvest & processing methods. Consequently more than 40% of fishers were dissatisfied with the income they make from this harvest and the industry has been marred by poor product quality. This project aimed to improve the fishers’ income and product quality through support to improve village-based post-harvest handling and processing methods.

The research team led by SCU’s Dr Steven Purcell was a collaboration with government fishery ministries in Kiribati, Tonga and Fiji to develop a highly successful training program including videos, manuals and workshops held in villages which built capacity within fishing communities. There is evidence to support economic benefits of these changed practices.



  • Fisher communities particularly in Pacific Islands and including women
  • Coordinators in Fiji, Kiribati and Tonga who will have ongoing advisory role in their countries
  • Traders, exporters and retailers down the value chain
  • Fishery researchers
  • Fishery managers – support for fishers via training and resources such as coarse salt

The resources developed by this project have had significant impact building capacity across at least 80 fisher communities. The training manual (44 pages) was initially translated into local languages and later also translated into Arabic and French. Over 6,000 printed copies have now been distributed to countries worldwide along with further electronic copies.  A training video produced in 4 languages was available as DVD and also on YouTube (150,000 views).

More than 900 fishers, 30% of whom were women, were trained in village workshops across the 3 countries. Improved job satisfaction was seen amongst fishers attending the workshops—95% of them believed the workshops “provided them with new knowledge” and “improved their perceptions of processing”.

“first time to participate on sea cucumber processing training and looking forward to carry out processing of sea cucumber in the future for better income” [Tongan fisher]

Over 90% of the training fishers reported better quality of bêche-de-mer using the new methods. Time efficiencies were also gained for many fishers adopting the new processing methods as they don’t need to cook the cucumbers for so long.

There was clear evidence of long-term capacity building amongst the communities, one year after the training workshops, where new methods (for example salt-curing) were still in place. The knowledge was also well diffused through the community with the majority of fishers, especially women, reporting that they had shared their new knowledge with other untrained fishers.

Whilst fishers’ perceptions suggested improved incomes following this training program, economic impact was complex and linked to broader industry issues. Many fishers believed they were earning more and feedback from buyers indicated that the trained fishers produced better quality products. The average price of bêche-de-mer sold in Hong Kong and Guangzhou China rose by 2.4% pa which exceeds the average CPI increase for China over this period (2011–2016). However the socioeconomic data of trained fishers indicated that their average weekly incomes didn’t increase significantly, most likely attributed to external factors such as value-chain inequities, access to necessary resources (coarse salt) and dwindling wild stocks of the sea cucumbers.

Across 22 species of sea cucumbers sold in Fiji, Mr Lalavanua (Fisheries Officer with the Wildlife Conservation Society) 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.”

Despite some initial concerns of possible negative environmental impacts the evidence suggests that training neither encouraged others to start fishing sea cucumbers nor encouraged greater fishing effort.

Fishers lacked information about market prices and many of them complained about not receiving higher prices from buyers when the product was better quality. The research revealed opportunities to improve the value-chain structures for these fisheries commodities, for example by supporting auction systems or setting national pricing standards.

beche de mer processing

This work followed an earlier successful scoping study from 2011 (ACIAR-PARDI) which provided baseline data for later (‘post’) comparison and testing of impacts.  The project was undertaken with funding ($1.2 million) from the Australian Centre for International Agricultural Research (ACIAR) from 2013 to 2016. Dr Steven Purcell worked with colleagues from James Cook University, University of Wollongong and an inter-governmental agency, Pacific Community, along with fishery department officers in each of the partner countries Fiji, Tonga and Kiribati. The research in Fiji involved collaboration with researchers from the Wildlife Conservation Society and from Partners in Community Development Fiji.

Socio-economic data were collected via (ethics approved) questionnaire-based interviews and focus groups with fishers to assess impacts on income and livelihoods. Tests of socioeconomic impact were made through rigorous statistical modelling of the data. The fisheries in Tonga and Kiribati were closed by moratoria due to overfishing, this meant testing of impact through socio economic data collection was undertaken only on Fiji.

Publications from the project revealed the fishing effort and sea cucumber catches in Fiji, Kiribati, Tonga and New Caledonia, the socioeconomic conditions of the fisheries, the catch composition and fishing modes, perceptions of fishers, and pre-existing postharvest processing methods used by fishers.

A value-chain analysis examined changes in value from fisher through to traders, exporters and finally to retail markets in China. That publication, in the journal Marine Policy, concluded that artisanal fishers received a small proportion of the end market value for high value species and a lack of transparency in the value chains. Auction systems and pricing standards could potentially improve financial returns to fishers.

A further published study, in ICES Journal of Marine Science, showed gendered and geographic variation in incomes of fishers among regions in Fiji, and a high economic reliance on sea cucumbers. Significantly lower incomes of women fishers than men fishers showed a need to improve market chains. Fuel-efficient fishing strategies by women and consumptive use by men using scuba gears offered guidance to fishery managers for policy to lower the carbon footprint in artisanal fisheries.

Through a market study in China, the project also published regionally sought-after data on market prices of beche-de-mer in the journal Marine Policy. The study revealed relationships with product size of beche-de-mer from 24 species of Indo-Pacific sea cucumbers sold in Hong Kong and Guangzhou, China. It affirmed that demand remains strong for wild-caught sea cucumbers.

Further links