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How a Small Island Nation Is Saving the Humble Sea Dick

The humble sea cucumber, an animal oft-adorned with the most undignified of common names—donkey dung, burnt hotdog, sea dick—is among the world’s most valuable fisheries.

The humble sea cucumber, an animal oft-adorned with the most undignified of common names—donkey dung, burnt hotdog, sea dick—is among the world's most valuable fisheries, commanding prices as high as $500 per kilogram dry weight. In New Ireland, one of the major island provinces of Papua New Guinea, sea cucumbers play a major role in the local economy, providing the primary source of income for many local fishermen—until the fishery collapsed, and sea cucumber harvesting was banned.

As the sea cucumber population slowly creeps back thanks to a national fishing moratorium, Peter Minimulu, project manager at the Nago Island Mariculture Research Facilities, is spearheading a new model for sustainable sea cucumber aquaculture in Papua New Guinea.

In 2008, Papua New Guinea was the third largest exporter of sea cucumbers, accounting for 10 percent of the global demand—on the record, at least. Poaching was rampant and export manifests from shipments leaving PNG often failed to match import logs in the Asian countries where sea cucumbers are consumed. Overfishing soon followed, and sea cucumber populations fell to a fraction of their former abundance. Many freedivers drowned as they ventured into deeper water to find the last few. Recognizing that some populations had declined by as much as 99 percent, the government of Papua New Guinea issued a national moratorium on the entire fishery.

Peter Minimulu. Image: Andrew David Thaler

Peter Minimulu began his aquaculture career far from the sea and its cucumbers, at the Highlands Aquaculture Development Center in the New Guinea highlands. There, he worked to fill training and cultural gaps in the establishment of freshwater aquaculture programs, while making tilapia stock more accessible, creating distribution points for fish farmers, and solving feed and health problems.

"We wanted to have people culturing fish like they look after chicken," he told me. When Minimulu was appointed project manager at the Nago Island Mariculture Research Facility, an island research station that, at the time, existed only on paper, he barely knew how to swim, but he knew that sea cucumbers would need to be a cornerstone of their program.

Nago is a tiny island a few hundred meters east of Kavieng, on the northern tip of New Ireland. Once the site of a Japanese tuna processing plant, the government seized control and in 2007 turned Nago over to the National Fisheries College to build a field station. When Minimulu arrived in 2008, there was nothing but bush and the overgrown remains of the old tuna plant.

Much of the field station was built by hand, with materials carried over by skiff from Kavieng. Though still under construction, the field station boasts wet and dry labs, housing for staff and visiting scientists, dorms, a dining hall, and unparalleled access to the ocean. Minimulu's vision is to create a world class facility and a place for all Pacific Island researchers. He wants research that will benefit both the people of Papua New Guinea and the international research community.

"There is a real need for us to have Papua New Guinea researchers doing Papua New Guinea research," Minimulu told me.

Status of sea cucumber fisheries in Pacific Island countries and territories. Red means a country has few regulation on the fishery, yellow is for fisheries that have closed in the last five years or are open with management plans being developed, and green is for nations that have had the fishery closed for 20 years or are well-managed. Image: Secretariat of the Pacific Community

They needed a project to get the new field station on the map, and Minimulu knew it should be sea cucumbers. Beginning in 2012, the Nago Island Mariculture Facility partnered with Dr. Cathy Hair, a researcher out of Australia, to establish the country's first sea cucumber aquaculture program.

For Minimulu, community engagement was as important as primary research. He went out into the local communities, often travelling island-by-island through Kavieng lagoon, a wide, shallow lagoon with abundant sea cucumber habitat, to get permission from former sea cucumber fishermen to work in their lagoon as well as broodstock for the aquaculture program. The long term success of the project would depend upon acceptance and support by neighboring communities. He invested his time educating those communities, understanding their concerns, and obtaining consent to use their marine resources. It was, after all, their livelihood on the line.

Minimulu's approach worked. Local fishermen, understanding the importance of the program to sea cucumber recovery, provided the initial broodstock. Sea cucumbers are spawned in tanks on land; as they grow, they are transferred to floating pens. As the next generation of sea cucumbers reach maturity, the initial broodstock is returned to the local communities. Broodstock aren't the only thing sent back: Minimulu wants the farms themselves to spread. On Nago, locals can receive both the training and materials necessary to establish their own sea cucumber pens.

Though sea cucumber populations are still far from their recovery target, by all measures the program is working. Tagged with fluorescent dye, cucumbers released from the facility have been tracked across the lagoon. They are more abundant now than in the years prior to the moratorium, which has already been extended once, and signs point towards a continued ban on sea cucumber harvest.

"When the fishery was open, you couldn't see a single sandfish," said Minimulu. Now they can be found throughout the lagoon, in seagrass and on sand flats. But the program's success doesn't mean that the sea cucumbers have recovered from decades of overfishing, yet. According to Minimulu, "our fear is that the wild cucumber will never recover."

Hell or Salt Water is a series on Motherboard about exploring and preserving our oceans. Follow along here.