The Sea Cucumber - Sustainable Farming is the only way forward
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
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 cucumber can consume fallen organic matter. It's important to determine an ecological balance for a multi-species farm, so that the operation has an appropriate number of sea cucumber for the waste that is generated. Too much waste could cause overfeeding and subsequent health problems.
Another benefit of sustainable aquaculture over the fishery status quo is higher quality. In the wild, sea cucumbers can receive scars from the harsh environment and crab attacks. If they're being fished, they are very likely to be improperly handled, causing great stress and the quick emergence of white sores.
Additionally, at the processing stage, processors often are not trained properly to produce high quality dried specimens. Wholesalers receive varying degrees of quality and size, often not up to standard. In an aquaculture operation, all these factors can be controlled with effective company management to produce vast quantities of high-quality dried product.
Size, in terms of length and weight, is a primary determinant of value alongside processing quality. Due to overfishing, it
is now exceptionally difficult to catch holothuria scabra that are over one kilogram in drained weight, meaning most caught vary in weights
from 100 to 700 grams.
An aquaculture operation utilising best practice methods can achieve such an average weight in around 24-30 months, though we at The Aquaculture Group proudly reach an average one kilogram in under a year through our world-leading farming methods. There is an exponential relationship between price and size, so aquaculture operations will be able to generate very high revenue from their large specimens.
Extremely inefficient complex value chains
The complex value chains that support sea cucumber fisheries are extremely inefficient. Multiple layers of middlemen exist, each taking a cut, hence increasing the final price to end consumers. The value chain is filled with opportunistic agents unconcerned with grand business strategy. A vertically integrated company from egg to export directly eliminates supply chain inefficiencies, providing additional competitive advantage and room to compete on price.
By controlling most of the supply chain, traceability is much more easily introduced. The reality is the sea cucumber market is tainted with illegally sourced and smuggled product, coming from regions with a modern occurrence of fishery slavery.
As consumers and wholesalers around the world are demanding to know more about the origin of their products, sustainable aquaculture operations will be able to benefit the most from the implementation of supply chain traceability.
Professional aquaculture operations also improve greatly in occupational health and safety. Sadly, the hundreds of thousands of impoverished fisherfolk worldwide who make up the workforce supplying wild sea cucumber are increasingly risking their safety to catch the remaining sea cucumber.
With shallow populations almost completely wiped out, fisherfolk must delve deeper, usually not having appropriate equipment to do so. Many people have been injured or have died, with no concern from the exploitive agents who increasingly demand more. A professional aquaculture operation will have strict management, well-developed procedures, and proper equipment in place to provide a safe working environment.
Additionally, well-developed aquaculture businesses will be able to pay excellent salaries for workers due to the luxury status of sea cucumber, far beyond what is considered normal for rural areas of developing countries where sea cucumber typically originates. This attracts the best workforce, able to achieve higher productivity.
The future is sustainable, and truly glorious
Food safety is the primary concern alongside price for consumers around the world. As sea cucumber is a luxury good, consumers expect high quality, safe, and honest product. Unfortunately, in some cases, various actors in the value chain may use dishonest and even unsafe practices to inflate the value of their product.
This could include things like steroids, chemicals at the processing stage, or simply not drying the product as much as it should be to prevent spoilage. A sustainable aquaculture business with a reputation will pragmatically have honest business practices, ensuring the high investment needed will not go to waste due to a bad reputation. Consumers will naturally gravitate towards good reputation.
The final main reason why sustainable aquaculture is the future of sea cucumber is higher supply certainty. The simple reality
is that controlled production in well-managed operations will be able to supply expected quantities of product, at expected weights, at regular intervals. Fishery value chains commonly face supply chain problems as there is no level of certainty at any point. Wholesalers must factor this into their prices, negatively affecting end consumers.
All in all, a sustainable aquaculture operation that is vertically integrated, professional, scientifically driven, and well-managed and led will be able perform extremely well in the sea cucumber market. They will be able to outcompete their competition, even going as far as undercutting them with ease. This is the vision that we at The Aquaculture Group are striving towards every day.
The future of sea cucumber is sustainable, and it is truly glorious...
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