Sea cucumbers or sand-fish, commonly referred to as balat in Malaysia, are considered a delicacy in Southeast Asia. Their squishy body and slimy skin might turn off some people but they are prized because they are rich in protein and packed with vitamins. Various species also have therapeutic properties and medicinal benefits such as tonifying the kidney, moistening dryness of the intestines, treating stomach ulcers, asthma, hypertension, rheumatism, and healing wounds.
It is no wonder then that these spiny-skinned creatures fetch high prices in the world market. In 2003, the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) valued the international sea cucumber market at $130 million USD. With the multiple benefits from the sea cucumbers, these soft-bodied, seafloor dwellers are looking to be the next big opportunity for coastal communities in Marudu Bay in Sabah, Malaysia for a better life.
A helping hand
Mapan Mapan is one of the small coastal communities in the State of Sabah. It is located beside Tun Mustapha Park (TMP), a large marine area in northern Sabah that has been identified for management. TMP is about 1 million hectares and it is designated for multiple use, including wildlife conservation, aquaculture, tourism, and sustainable fisheries.
The Coastal and Marine Resources Management in the Coral Triangle – Southeast Asia (CTI-SEA) project is currently working with sea cucumber farmers in Mapan Mapan as part of a livelihood assistance program to upgrade their sea cucumber enterprise. Like other areas in the world, wild sea cucumber has been decreasing. Trading is so profitable that it led to over-exploitation of wild populations.
Sea cucumber harvesting has been a form of income for the community even before CTI-SEA selected the site for livelihood assistance. The dwindling number of wild sea cucumbers leaves the ranching of sea cucumber as a viable option. These would be sourced from young sea cucumbers raised in hatcheries or from areas in the wild where young sea cucumbers are still plentiful. Once they have grown to a good size, it can be harvested and sold.
Important species for the ecosystem
The sea cucumber spends its time scavenging for food on the sea floor such as small marine animals, algae, and organic waste. This bottom dweller plays a key role keeping the ocean clean by sliding through the sand and eating unwanted material that would otherwise remain in the ecosystem and pollute it.
The food that passes through their digestive system ends up as beneficial organic waste which is easily recycled back into the ecosystem by bacteria. Over-exploitation, however, means that there are fewer sea cucumbers that can clean up the environment.
The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) has assessed several species, including the sandfish, as over-harvested. Sandfish is the primary species used for farming in Mapan Mapan. One of the ways to reduce the exploitation is to produce seedlings in the hatchery and grow the seedling in pens in the coastal areas. This can allow wild populations to repopulate and commit to their important role in the ecosytem.
A coastal community dependent on the sea
The CTI-SEA project in Mapan Mapan will establish a microenterprise model around sea cucumber ranching. A microenterprise is generally the smallest but most abundant form of business, such as selling food on the street or setting up small grocery stores, and others, with only a handful of workers. The goal is to make the community less dependent on sourcing from wild populations of sea cucumbers and building their capacity to run a small business.
Since sea cucumber is seen as a luxury or specialty food item, the prices vary depending on the quality of the product. Prices can often reach as high as $400 USD per kilogram. Unfortunately, the ranchers of Mapan Mapan are unable to sell processed cucumber since they lack a drier and a freezer. They can only sell fresh sea cucumber, which spoils faster. This challenge has prevented them from entering the valuable international sea cucumber trade.
The focus of the livelihood assistance project will be the proper farming and processing of sea cucumbers. In addition, the community is trained to enhance their business skills. Materials for washing and boiling are also provided. Sea cucumber farmers in Mapan Mapan will sell them sun-dried to traders.
The future plan for sea cucumber farming in Mapan Mapan
Helping Mapan Mapan get off its feet is the first important step for CTI-SEA. Since September 2015, the project has held three trainings – from teaching them the biology and ecology of the sea cucumber, proper farming in pens, to learning entrepreneurial skills. These events allowed the team members to listen to the problems that ranchers faced in their farms such as barnacles damaging their fences to the lack of freshwater to help process the sea cucumbers.
In addition, the project will encourage the community to keep the coastal waters clean and to protect the seagrass beds since this is where the sea cucumbers grow. CTI-SEA will also encourage the community to leave a small number of sea cucumber to grow into adults, spawn, and have young one to grow in the wild. This approach can help restore the populations in the wild and ensure that the sea cucumber ranching will be sustainable for both the finances of the community and the sea cucumber populations.
Written by Panji Brotoisworo with inputs from Dr. Annadel Cabanban, Regional EAFM Specialist, and Sofia Johari, Research Assistant, of the Coral Triangle Initiative – Southeast Asia (RETA 7813)