CS Aquaculture case study
Sea cucumber Sustainable farming is the only way forward
Sea cucumber, a luxury marine treasure of Chinese cuisine, has been traditionally fished by many nations for centuries. An explosion in demand over recent decades has massively depleted wild populations, sowing disharmony in delicate ecosystems. Sustainable farming of sea cucumber is the only way forward, and with aquaculture becoming more competitive, such a transition now relies on early-moving visionary businesses to lead the way.
by Brandon Hargraves, CEO and Founder, The Aquaculture Group, Singapore
Feeding on decaying organic matter in the seabed, sea cucumbers play a crucial role in marine ecosystems as effective cleaners. Populations dutifully clear impressive amounts of algal, invertebrate, and waste particles that would otherwise slowly build up. Their important role improves ocean health in various ways, even helping to prevent serious problems such as algal blooms and coral bleaching. Whilst other organisms in the ecosystem may undertake similar roles, any disruption to balanced populations will send ripples across the entire food chain. Fisheries do not belong in the seafood industry of tomorrow as the market is utterly incapable of responsibly managing wild stocks. The global market exponentially demands more seafood, and a virtually unlimited supply of industry actors are more than happy to deplete wild resources for quick and easy cashflow. Complex multi-party value chains for sea cucumber are prolific across the Pacific and Indian Oceans, enabling a million autonomous tentacles of the market to comb the seabed day and night. In countries with government controls, illegal poaching and smuggling is rampart, sometimes involving international criminal organisations.
The very decentralised nature of the industry
Though while the market may act like an unfeeling and cruel machine, it is hundreds of thousands of everyday fisherfolk, processors, logisticians, and wholesalers, that make up the very human reality. Whilst wild stocks are significantly depleted, the high price per sea cucumber ensures it is well worth one’s time. It is this very decentralised nature of the industry, fuelled by the need to feed one’s family, coupled with government ineffectiveness at fishery regulation, that unfortunately makes fisheries incapable of responsibly managing wild resources. The increasingly addressable problem with the sea cucumber market is the lack of substantial supply from aquaculture. This is due to poor technical and scientific understanding of how to effectively breed and farm sea cucumber, high capital requirements, high risk exposure to environmental phenomena, and the fact that research and development is spread thin over several different species. Throughout the 21st century, a collective library of scientific and technical knowledge has been growing. The two most expensive species, apostichopus japonicus and holothuria scabra, sport the
most substantial amount of knowledge. While there are wildly varying levels of growth success between operations, it is possible to be competitive if staffed by experienced technicians and managers. The industry is not yet at a point where small household-run farms can exist like in the case of some other aquaculture species, but the industry trajectory is certainly favourable. The viability of sea cucumber aquaculture is gradually improving, with the industry slowly maturing into professional operations. Operations that are large-scale, professionally managed, scientifically driven, and vertically integrated from egg to export, can absolutely outcompete fisheries in every conceivable metric. That not only includes price, volume, and supply reliability, but also quality, sustainability, food safety and workplace safety.
Aquaculture is the sensible way forward
There are numerous reasons for which aquaculture is the sensible way forward for sea cucumber. Environmentally, it’s the obvious choice. Popular species like japonicus and scabra are globally endangered, with populations further decreasing. A successful hatchery program can produce many millions of juveniles in a year, allowing a huge aquaculture operation to be entirely self-sufficient in supply. As aquaculture becomes more commonplace, the number of trained hatchery technicians will increase globally, enabling additional hatcheries to be built, further reducing reliance on wild stocks. In an integrated multitrophic aquaculture setting, the sea cucumber can be included to great effect at the benthic level in certain farm configurations. While they can’t be included in carnivorous fish farms due to sea cucumber’s herbivorous diet, they pair excellently with seaweed, abalone, and shellfish. To reduce the environmental impact of such intensive farms, sea
52 | September 2021 - International Aquafeed