April 2013 – Kavewa Island, Nukusa Village, Yadua Island
Sea cucumber is a high value, high demand Chinese delicacy that is sought after by Chinese traders buying dried sea cucumbers from all over the world especially in Asia and the Pacific. Sea cucumbers are flexible, elongated echinoderms belonging to the class Holothuroidea. They live on the sea floor in reefs, lagoons and coastal shallows with some species living in deeper waters. They move about slowly over the sea bottom like scavengers, feeding on debris found in the sand and sediment. Some species bury themselves in sandy mud while others are perched on coral or rock crevices.
They are collected from the ocean floor and processed into a dry food product called bêche-de-mer and exported to Asian markets mainly for the Chinese. Sea cucumbers have been harvested and processed into bêche-de-mer as early as the eighteenth century, continuing and becoming increasingly exploited throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries as the Chinese population, appetite and buying power increased rapidly in China and in Chinatowns worldwide. It is a common story of woe heard amongst fishermen that they are catching smaller and smaller lower value sea cucumbers, since many high value species have been depleted from their fishing grounds.
Sea cucumbers are harvested by hand at low tide on the reef flats or by diving in deeper waters close to the reefs for deep water species. Sadly, diving is fast becoming the norm for high value sea cucumbers as a great number have been harvested out from shallower waters. Because of its economic viability, most artisanal fishermen (men, women and children) all over this island nation collect this marine creature in a targeted manner. We encountered sea cucumber harvesting, cooking and drying in many villages we visited.
Processed near their collecting grounds, cooking and drying process are followed. Storing dried bêche-de-mer does not require refrigeration. China, Hong Kong and Singapore are the main re-exporters and these countries are within easy reach of the Pacific Islands with the trade linked through regular shipping lines.
Sea cucumbers are ecologically important in the marine environment – acting like the sea floor vacuum cleaners. Most sea cucumbers eat detritus which are parts of dead animals, plants and poo, decaying in the the ocean floor. A sea cucumber scoops detritus filled sand into its mouth, breaking down decaying matter and recycling them as nutrients back into the marine ecosystem.