A four-year, A$1.7 million (K3.6 million) project has begun to map out how to revive Papua New Guinea’s dormant sea cucumber industry.
Fishing industry insiders believe that a ban on gathering and selling beche-de-mer, or sea cucumbers, may be lifted in the near future.The PNG Government introduced the moratorium in 2009 because of over-fishing.
‘Stocks have recovered quite well so that the moratorium may be lifted at some stage, but what we want to avoid is a repeat of what happened in the past, and avoid overfishing,’ says Project Leader Paul Southgate, the University of the Sunshine Coast’s Professor of Sustainable Tropical Agriculture.
The project is being funded by the Australian Centre for International Agricultural Research (ACIAR) and will be based at the PNG National Fisheries Authority’s Mariculture Research Facility in Kavieng.
The facility is a former Japanese-owned tuna processing plant, which the NFA developed to create a modern mariculture research centre.
Southgate says locals and National Fisheries Authority staff will be trained in sustainably culturing marine species for potential export to Australian and Asian markets.
‘Sea cucumbers are quite strange-looking animals, but they are in high demand in south-east Asia for their perceived medicinal properties,’ says Southgate.
‘Prices for the highest grade, and those species most in demand, are around the A$250 to A$400 (K530 to K850) a kilo mark. But, in Hong Kong, prices can range from US$115 to 640 per kg (K349 to K1,940).
‘So there’s a lot of demand and huge opportunity. The question is where supply comes from.’
Mariculture provides an opportunity for a more regular supply of product, says Southgate, ‘so: constant and routine supply, rather than a boom-and-bust type situation, which characterises sea cucumber fisheries.’
‘We are using pens to culture juvenile sea cucumbers at this research stage. But, as the industry develops, we may progress to ranching: basically, producing the animals in a hatchery and then releasing the juveniles into good sites or areas which we know suit growth and development.
‘Prices for the highest grade and those species most in demand are around the A$250-400 (K530-K850) a kilo mark. But in Hong Kong, prices can range from US$115-640 per kg (K349-K1,940). So there’s a lot of demand and huge opportunity.’
‘The research will look at how we can identify aquaculture animals so they can be differentiated from wild collected sea cucumbers.
‘Anecdotally, wild sea cucumbers are reputed to have greater quality but it’s hard to know where that information comes from because very few people have actually aquacultured them and grown them to market size. Our research indicates that cultured sea cucumbers have very similar qualities to those collected from the wild.’
The project will map those parts of the PNG coastline which are suitable for sea cucumber culture, sites which are less suitable and sites which are unsuitable. It will estimate potential production values for each of those areas.
The project will also look at how to market beche-de-mer, from packaging through to labelling, which will probably promote the product as coming from a sustainable farming regime.
Initial research has shown that the potential income from sea cucumber farming could be A$32,000 (K68,620) per hectare per year in New Ireland.
An assessment of sea cucumber fisheries in the Western, Central and Manus Provinces in 2007 showed that on average, households which harvested sea cucumbers could make A$1,400-4,2000 (K3,000-K9,000) per year from the sale of beche-de-mer.