Thursday, 19 June 2014

Blueprint for brilliant beche-de-mer

A brand new guidebook to processing sea cucumbers is already making a splash internationally. Thanks to ACIAR-funded research aiming to improve livelihoods of village fishers in the Pacific, the booklet has been developed by project partners Southern Cross University and the Secretariat of the Pacific Community.
Fisher in Kiribati collecting a leopardfish (photo S. Purcell)
Sea cucumbers have been hand-collected and exported from the Pacific Islands since the 1840s. Once processed to a dried product known as ‘beche-de-mer’ in the food world, they are particularly popular in China, used as a key luxury ingredient of festive dishes.

They can fetch high prices IF processed correctly – and there’s the crunch (so to speak). Up till now, many Pacific fishers lacked the know-how to properly prepare their harvest, and not surprisingly, poor quality products resulted in poor and variable returns. This is where the research has been targeting its main efforts, working with Pacific fishers to teach them the best ways to cut, salt, dry and store sea cucumbers using their own village resources.
Project researcher Watisoni Lalavanua of PCDF, Fiji
with two species of sea cucumber (photo: S. Purcell)

Project leader Dr Steven Purcell says ‘Pacific artisanal fisheries have waited 170 years for a comprehensive guide for producing high-quality beche-de-mer. The wait is over.’

And Dr Purcell is already receiving terrific feedback on the booklet, from around the world.

‘This booklet was long due and fishers that can access it will learn how best to process their catch and hopefully make a better living out of this trade,’ says Alessandro Lovatelli, Aquaculture Officer of the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization.

‘Nicely done and very useful,' agrees Timothy Skewes of CSIRO Marine and Atmospheric Research. 'I was just in Torres Strait last week and they are crying out for this kind of material there,’ he says.

Woman drying sea cucumbers in the sun, Kiribati
(photo: S. Purcell)
More than 4000 copies have been printed in local languages for fishers in Fiji, Tonga and Kiribati and will soon be distributed through village-based workshops in the ACIAR project.

Consideration is being given to translating the guide into other languages as well, to extend the reach of its practical step-by-step methods to other countries.

The next step for the research team is to investigate the impacts of their interventions on the livelihoods of the fisher folk.  'Before-and-after' socio-economic surveys will test whether the new improved methods and teachings have benefited fishers and their families.

The research is also hoping to have benefits to fishery sustainability, as sea cucumber numbers are threatened by overfishing. By encouraging more time spent in value-adding of their product, and higher sale prices, fishers may have less need, or less time, to go fishing. Whether or not that happens will be determined through analyses of the survey data.

The Secretariat of the Pacific Community is supporting Pacific fisheries agencies to improve their management plans for harvesting of sea cucumbers.

Dr Purcell says ‘Initiatives to improve fisheries management need to progress alongside initiatives to improve processing methods, to ensure that fishers earn a substantially higher income from a smaller harvest.’  

By Dr Wendy Henderson, ACIAR Communications

More information:
ACIAR project FIS/2010/096 Evaluating the impacts of improving postharvest processing of sea cucumbers in the western Pacific region is being led by Southern Cross University.

The guidebook Processing sea cucumbers into beche-de-mer— A manual for Pacific Island fishers, by Steven Purcell, is available in English, Fijian, Kiribati and Tongan.

YouTube video Sea cucumber processing in the Pacific : a PARDI scoping study

Value, Market Preferences and Trade of Beche-De-Mer from Pacific Island Sea Cucumbers.
S. W. Purcell (2014) PLoS ONE 9(4): e95075. 

The cost of being valuable: predictors of extinction risk in marine invertebrates exploited as luxury seafood S. Purcell, B. A. Polidoro, J-F Hame, R. U. Gamboa and A. Mercier (2014), Proceedings of the Royal Society (Biological Sciences) 281(1781).


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