14 February 2009

Sea cucumber ranching

The Garlic bread sea cucumber (Holothuria scabra) is also called Sandfish and is an important source of income and food for traditional coastal dwellers.
Sandfish sea cucumber (Holothuria scabra)Over-harvesting is seriously affecting its global status and even in Singapore it is listed as 'Vulnerable' on our Red List due mainly to habitat loss rather than over-collection.

Here's an article about its status in Fiji and efforts made to cultivate the animal and to restock populations in marine protected areas.

Hope for sea food
Alumeci Nakeke Fiji Times 14 Feb 09;
The Fiji Sandfish locally called dairo is a delicacy for Fijians that can be prepared in many ways. Sometimes the sea cucumber is stuffed and cooked in coconut cream or mixed with other shellfish and fish for a Lauan dish called "vakasakera".

For really hungry people it can be cooked whole and then cut into thin slices and dipped in lemon juice and chillies

Indeed the sea cucumber (Holothuria Scabra) used to be strung up and sold at the market and consumers looked forward to buying them on Saturdays for Sunday's lunch.

Unfortunately, it's not so easy to find them at the market these days. According to researchers the number of Fiji Sandfish found have declined largely due to overharvesting for international markets. Nowadays, the middlemen come to the village to buy lucrative sea cucumbers .

Overharvesting has been the cause of its decline in numbers and sizes as it could take about two years for the villagers to harvest them for food.

In the district of Wailevu in Cakaudrove, villagers have now seen the consequences of overharvesting. Cakaudrove Yaubula Management Support Team community site representative Apolosi Silaca said its depletion was felt by the villagers.

"Those people have been selling them and getting $1 for each dairo but when sold in overseas markets it could get much more than that. Now they know they are bringing in less than before and even in some villages the middlemen have set up their collecting sites where they also cook and dry them," he said.

But people can also get more for the A-Grade sandfish which are of bigger sizes.

But there is a ray of hope now for the villagers as a research team is working on a mini-project for sandfish culture and sea ranching.

This is the first time it has been trialed in Fiji but they are optimistic it will be successful.

USP Institute of Applied Sciences project officer Semisi Meo who is also assisting in the project said sandfish releases had been tried out in New Caledonia by the Worldfish Centre where results were promising but inconsistent.

Research into the survival and growth of juvenile sandfish released into the wild in Fiji will help determine whether these techniques can help to restore overfished stocks.

An additional aim of the Fiji project is the transfer of technology for production of sandfish from Australia and New Caledonia to other parts of the Pacific. It is an Australian Centre for Agriculture Research mini project called "Culture of juvenile sandfish for restocking " coordinated by Cathy Hair.

The Secretariat of the Pacific Community also has a collaborating researcher Tim Pickering working with Fiji Fisheries, J Hunter Pearls Limited and the University of the South Pacific.

Meo said a stakeholders' workshop was held for Fisheries by the USP Marine Studies Program with IAS last year.

The workshop discussed the the sea cucumber fishery and its management and scoped out the opportunity for culture and release them in Fiji.

For the trial itself the broodstock was collected from Natuvu Village, Wailevu in Cakaudrove. Local divers search for sandfish at high tide in the evenings which was also paid for according to its weight. Other broodstock was collected from a mangrove pool at Nawi Village

The villagers, he said also agreed that sandfish stock was declining and that was why they were excited about the project.

The Hunter Pearls Ltd Hatchery in Savusavu which is used for blacklip pearl oyster was chosen because it had the basic facilities for rearing sandfish and only minor modifications were done to facilitate the activity.

Bigger sandfish were chosen for spawning as these were more likely to be mature and the females have greater numbers of eggs.

"When they (sandfish) get to the stage where they are more than 3 grams in weight, the juveniles are then ready for the next phase in which they will be released and monitored in seagrass beds in the wild," he said.

"This is the part scientists are still unsure about, so it needs to be properly tested".

"At the moment the Hunter Pearls Hatchery in Savusavu is being used for spawning and rearing the juveniles. When they grow to the right size they can be released back to where the broodstock originated. At the same time they will be monitored to see how they respond the new conditions of the wild. The juveniles will also be tagged at the hatchery and that is how they will be distinguished from wild sandsfish at the release site."

The juveniles need to spend more time in the hatchery until they are big enough to cope with release into the wild. It is hoped that in a couple of months time they will be ready for release, Meo said. Some will be kept in fenced pens to monitor survival and growth rate. "We will also be trying to learn its tolerance in the wild and after one year the pens will be removed," he said.

He said to prevent poaching the re-stocked juveniles would be taken to marine protected areas only.

This will be an added benefit and incentive for Cakaudrove communities who are considering setting up marine protected areas. For villages in Wailevu it is their hope that this will be their chance of restocking their depleting dairo resources.

"We have presented this project to the Cakaudrove Provincial Council and they have fully endorsed the idea. There are over 35 MPAs from the 135 villages in the province and the research will be carried out in one or two qoliqoli where suitable conditions for the juvenile sandfish are found," he said.

"This project, if successful, could also contribute to the communities' well-being," said Meo.

"At the moment we are hopeful that it will be successful and if proven it will be taken to other MPAs in Cakaudrove and possibly Viti Levu and other sites. Other Pacific Island countries will also be watching the outcome of the trial with interest."

* Ms Nakeke is an ocean science reporter for SeaWeb, a non-government organisation that works with the media and scientific community to raise awareness on ocean issues.

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