A depleting delicacy

Normal, Weekender

The National Fisheries Authority has imposed a three-year blanket ban on the harvesting of beche-de-mer to ensure it is not fished out, reports SHARON E. BARNABAS

THE sea cucumber or beche-de-mer fishery sector is a silent achiever that has contributed to the livelihoods of thousands of people along Papua New Guinea’s pristine coastline.
“Beche-de-mer fishery has touched nearly all the lives of every coastal community that’s probably 300, 000 fishermen alone, plus buyers and exporters,” said Mrs Koren-Yaman.
Luanah Koren-Yaman works with the National Fisheries Authority and is responsible for sedentary fisheries.
She explains that the sea cucumber market is big in east and Southeast Asia and until recently locals tapped into the industry and are now making a living from it. 
Most cultures in the east and Southeast Asian region regard the sea cucumber as a delicacy.
There are a number of dishes made with sea cucumber as this ingredient is expected to have a strong cultural emphasis on health.
Sea cucumbers are marine animals that are used in fresh or dried form in various cuisines. The creature and the food product are commonly known as beche-de-mer.
There are about 650 species of sea cucumbers.
The Asian market for sea cucumber is estimated to be US$60 million (K163m).
The dried form account for 95% of the sea cucumber traded annually in China, Hong Kong, Singapore, Taiwan, Malaysia, Korea, and Japan and are typically used in Chinese cuisines. The biggest re-exporter in the trade is China, Hong Kong, and Singapore.
NFA was not at ease to release current export figures for PNG but a 2005 study had showed PNG was the third largest supplier of beche-de-mer to the Hong Kong market.
In 2005 PNG exported 577 tonnes of sea cucumber with a gross value of K28 million.
According to Mr Koren-Yaman, the beche-de-mer is a vital means of income for most coastal communities and has contributed slightly over a percent to the gross domestic products via export earnings.
“Although the price is very much dependent on the species, dried beche-de-mer can fetch a price of K10- K300 per kilo,” she said.
Sand fish (high value species) if processed and dried properly earns up to K250-K300 per kilo.
The lolly fish (low species) can fetch K10-K15 per kilo.
Sadly, for the next three years, the people whose livelihoods depend on the sea cucumber will have to look for other means of income.
NFA has imposed a three-year blanket ban on the harvesting of all commercially viable species of the beche-de-mer.
The reason is because the stock of this delicacy is nearing depletion.
Despite the impact on livelihoods, NFA is insisting that the move be undertaken to ensure the Beche-de-mer fishery sector is not entirely fished out. 
“To save beche-de-mer fishery from completely collapsing and impacting everyone concerned, the Fisheries Board has opted for a 3 year total closure in order to maintain sustainability,” Mrs Yaman said.
An NFA study had confirmed that the beche-de-mer stock was nearing exhaustion and if nothing is done, the possibility of dying out is probable.
The study said “large parts of fishing area for certain species have been fully over fished, and sizes of sea cucumber have shown a serious downward trend”.
It also showed a drop in population size by 80% for nearly all of the species harvested over the last five years.
 “This could have a serious impact on the successful completion of the reproductive cycle on all beche-de-mer species including their interactive ecological systems making it in dire need for rescue,” Mrs Yaman said.  
There had been collapses in beche-de-mer fisheries in numerous countries prompting concerns about the sustainability of the 40 species involved in international trade.
The collapse led to the introduction of a range of management measures such as area and seasonal closures, minimum size limits, catch quota…in the beche-de-mer fishery.
Anyone of these options could have been imposed in PNG however; NFA opted for a total closure.
Total closure was opted due to high depletion of all species and in a large area of the fishing parts of the Maritime Provinces.
Conservation International’s Adaptation Strategy Specialist, David Mitchell shared similar sentiments that proper management measures must be set to ensure there is sustainability of the sector in future. 
He said if PNG is going to generate income from its natural resources it needs to ensure that resources are harvested at a sustainable rate.
This will ensure the ecological sustainability of these resources.
“Only when we establish a sustainable rate of utilising these resources then we can plan our economic sustainability of what we take and make money from,” he said.
Mr Mitchell said all coastal provinces are affected to a certain degree, but Western Province is the most affected with a high percent of under size catch.
“Over fishing, use of illegal fishing techniques and harvesting of under sized stock are all contributing factors to the depletion,” said Mr Mitchell.
He said there is a high demand for beche-de-mer in the Asian market, making the exporters ignore the under sized stocks that are sold by the fishermen.
He said overexploitation of natural resources such as beche-de-mer can detrimentally affect income generating opportunities.
This economic consequence however is due to the collective and cumulative overexploitation of the fishermen in the short term. 
In agreeing to the 3 year total closure imposed by NFA, Mr Mitchell said, it will affect the local communities, buyers and sellers but this is for their own good in the long term.
Mr Mitchell reiterated that the closure will allow for the stocks to recover and management of the fishery reviewed.
To save the fishery, all parties involved in the fishery should be cooperative and heed the regulations in place.
The pinch may be hard on the local fishermen who heavily depend on beche-de-mer fishery as their main source of income but it is for their own good.
Local fishermen must seriously heed the ban and source other income generating and concerned provincial authorities can assist by assisting locals seek alternatives ways of making a living.


Sharon Barnabas is a business reporter with The National in Port Moresby. She holds an Agricultural Science degree from the University of Technology.