Gold of the Sea


Words and pictures by HELEN TARAWA
BECHE-DE-MER, or sea cucumber as it is commonly known, is expected to earn the country a cool K50 million this year. For fishermen and women that dot the 13 maritime provinces, this is great news. Beche-de-mer is sometimes referred to as the ‘gold of the sea’ because of the high prices it fetches.
Whole families, especially women, have been the main beneficiaries with disadvantaged and isolated island communities in the coastal provinces earning a very high income from beche-de-mer. Communities along the coast of Central have also enjoyed huge benefits from beche-de-mer, a much sought-after luxury food item in China. When the beche-de-mer harvest season is on, locals from outside Port Moresby jostle for space at the outlets that buy it. For many, the trip into the city starts the night before just so they can queue up at the exporters’ warehouses by 5am for the 8am start of business. The beche-de-mer season has opened and I had the opportunity to visit some of those warehouses in the National Capital District where I met sellers from the coastal villages of Hula, Aroma and Alukuni.
Reeramimo Kornet, from Taurama, described beche-de-mer as a big income-earner for her community. She was critical of villagers who broke size regulations, saying the sea around the Tuna Bay area is almost void of sea cucumbers. The short harvesting period and the high fetching prices have seen the depletion of the sea creatures in her area. Reeramimo says the National Fisheries Authority (NFA) may have rules prohibiting the harvesting of undersized sea cucumbers but people are either unaware of it or are just plain greedy. She called on NFA to make regular visits to the villages to educate people on what, and what not to do.
Ila Karo, from Alukuni, estimates a taking home about K5000.
The harvesting of sea cucumber resumed last month after a ban of nearly seven years. The season will be open for six months.
CAPS Limited managing director Augerea Kilalema said the quality was poor.
“When we buy the product it’s not of the quality we want, most of it we have to buy and reprocess again and with the undersize issue, it is the biggest challenge.”
Depleted stock and overfishing caused NFA to place a ban on the beche-de-mer fishery in 2010. After lifting the ban, it introduced a Total Allowable Catch (TAC) limit for each province to allow for better monitoring and management of the fishery.
AK Marine Importer and exporter’s representative, Anua Kana, said that because of the ban they were seeing larger beche-de-mers produced for sale.
“Because of the re-opening we are working to get into new markets. The actual pricing market and everything is good.” She said the buyers were seeing poorly processed products and the production of undersized beche-de-mer at points of sale.
“We are frustrated because the products we purchase from fishers are not the quality we expect, and the people we export to overseas are also displeased because they expect quality from us,” she said. “I would like to ask that the recommendations for fisheries licence be issued to us earlier so that people are educated beforehand on the right things to do.”
Anua suggests that tougher measures be taken against the lawbreakers.
NFA has projected that the beche-de-mer fishery will generate about K50 million this year. This is an enterprise involving about half a million people from the coastal and island communities. An estimated K13 million has already been paid directly to the coastal and island communities since April 1 and this is likely to rise to K36 million by the end of the season.
The NFA has been monitoring the recovery of the sea cucumber population through provincial annual stock assessments. It has established an information system and trained and placed compliance monitors in all provinces.
The information system involves the collection of data from buyers and exporters on a weekly basis.
The fishing authority reported that the annual sea cucumber surveys showed that despite the seven-year ban, full recovery of the sea cucumber populations had not been fully achieved. It had consulted extensively and revised the beche-de-mer fishery management plan.
The fishery is managed using a minimum-size limit. Each maritime province is allocated a Total Allowable Catch to control how much sea cucumber can be harvested from their area, based on the harvestable sizes present in the waters and reefs of each province.
In order for the beche-de-mer fishery to be open every year, 30 percent of the estimated harvestable biomass (weight) is allowed to be harvested and that forms the TAC for the province.
For each province, the TAC is Milne Bay 118 tonnes, Central 58, Manus 53, New Ireland 43, Bougainville 28, West New Britain 15, Northern 15, Morobe 9, Western 7, New Britain 7, Madang 5, East Sepik and West Sepik 2.
Size limits have been set for 30 species of sea cucumbers.