Improving income of Pacific Island fishers through improved fishery processing

beche de mere

Overview of Impact

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 that built capacity within fishing communities. There is evidence to support the 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

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 socio-economic 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.