Sea Cucumber

The fishery

Pacific Sea Cucumbers are a unique species of seafood harvested in British Columbia. They are highly prized in China and Hong Kong for their nutritional value and texture and are also recognized in traditional Chinese medicine as providing effective treatments for stomach and intestinal ailments.

Sea Cucumbers are harvested by highly skilled commercial divers. The Pacific Sea Cucumber Harvesters Association (PSCHA) and Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO) jointly manage the fishery. The PSCHA represents Sea Cucumber licence holders and crews in collaborative management and research with DFO, First Nations and other community groups. The PSCHA undertakes extensive annual surveys and participates in various research programs to ensure the Sea Cucumber resources remain sustainable for future generations.

About

The Giant Red Sea Cucumber, Apostichopus californicus, is one of more than 20 species of Sea Cucumber found in BC waters. It is the only species that is commercially harvested in BC and can reach 50 cm in length. They are distinguished by their deep red or brownish colour and comprised by two parts, a firm outer layer of skin and 5 thick muscles lining the inside of the skin. There are two forms that Sea Cucumbers are sold, the first is referred to as “Whole cook”, the second is the separation of the skin and meat. The medicinal properties are thought to reside in the skin while the bright white meat is highly malleable and takes on flavour(s) infused by the mix of ingredients with which it is prepared. 100% of the Sea Cucumber is consumed, so there is zero waste.

Giant Red Sea Cucumbers ingest organically rich sediments and extract the nutrients they contain, allowing oxygenation of the bottom sediments in the process. Sea Cucumbers are broadcast spawners, which means that females and males release their gametes into the water column while they are in proximity. Eggs are fertilized externally, and the larvae spend several weeks feeding and developing as part of the plankton. The larvae eventually settle on the bottom and transform into juveniles. The average size of Sea Cucumbers in BC varies by area, but preferred sizes are generally larger than 30 cm.

The harvest

Commercial divers selectively harvest Sea Cucumbers individually. This is a highly specialized, sustainable fishery because it has no bycatch or impact on the ocean floor. Divers handpick Sea Cucumbers on the ocean bottom at depths as shallow as three metres and deep as 15-30 metres. Sea Cucumbers are placed into a bag clipped around the diver’s waist. The diver signals the topside crew when the bag is filled to lift it up onto the vessel. Sea Cucumbers, once on board, are immediately sliced, drained, cleaned and scraped before being stored until they can be delivered to the dock.

Preparation of the Sea Cucumber involves cleaning of the body cavity. If meats are being prepared separately, they are scraped from the skins and bagged in 1-kilogram portions for freezing. The skin of the Sea Cucumber, called “Trepang”, and whole cook products are stored in barrels for transport to government-registered shellfish plants for processing and export. Sea Cucumber skins are then boiled and salted to yield a dehydrated product. Sea Cucumbers meat is vacuum packed and frozen for export. Every step in this process is closely monitored to meet regulatory standards. Sea Cucumber vessels typically have three crew members – two divers and a tender.

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Sustainability

85 licences are available to harvest Sea Cucumber commercially. Each licence holder receives an equal share of the Total Allowable Catch (TAC) for the season, which limits their harvest each year. The TAC is determined based on annual stock surveys and assessments and the catch is monitored using dockside validation. Sea Cucumber fishing is broken up into defined management areas. Each area has a designated quota for harvest based on an annual exploitation rate of 3.3- 4.2%. In many areas, fishing is only allowed once every three years, so the exploitation rate is estimated cumulatively over 3 years. Harvesters must report the time and location of their harvest to a designated provider before and after fishing. All catch must be weighed and recorded by a certified third-party observer as soon as they arrive onshore to track daily harvests and ensure the TAC is not exceeded.

The vessel master is required to have a DFO approved catch validation and harvest Logbook that is assigned to each Sea Cucumber licence holder. The Logbook must be carried on the licensed vessel when fishing for Sea Cucumbers to record the date, time, fishing location, and weight of catch. Since 1997, the PSCHA has actively participated in collaborative research with DFO, First Nations groups, and other organizations to better understand the biology and ecology of Sea Cucumber. Each year, joint surveys are conducted along the coast to collect data on the size and structure of the sea cucumber populations. This research ensures the commercial harvest is always sustainable and conservative. Members of the Pacific Sea Cucumber Harvesters Association fully fund sustainability measures including logbook documentation and dockside monitoring and contribute to the survey as well as other research efforts.

When

The annual Sea Cucumber harvest begins in early October when the product quality is optimal, and the weather and water clarity are still favorable. The fishery is scheduled for eight weeks, but the majority of the product is harvested within the first few weeks.

When

The annual Sea Cucumber harvest begins in early October when the product quality is optimal, and the weather and water clarity are still favorable. The fishery is scheduled for eight weeks, but the majority of the product is harvested within the first few weeks.

Where

Licences for the commercial Sea Cucumber fishery are divided by location and are issued in four geographic areas. The North Coast extends from about the northern end of Aristazebal Island to Prince Rupert and has the largest number of eligible licences. The second largest is the Central Coast, extending north from Cape Caution to northern Aristazebal Island. The two South Coast areas, the East and West Coasts Vancouver Island (ECVI and WCVI), have significantly lower quotas with the WCVI being the smallest fishery.

The market

China and Hong Kong are the primary markets for Sea Cucumbers; though they are also used and sold widely in Korea, Singapore and Japan. Sea Cucumbers are often associated with wealth and luxury and are reserved as special occasion gifts such as Lunar New Year celebrations. More recently, however, Sea Cucumbers have become a culinary treat all around the world. To find out more about Pacific Sea Cucumber, please visit http://www.pscha.org/