Staying clear of another aquaculture boom and bust

Sea cucumber farming has potential but caution is advised, says research

The rapid decline of sea cucumber fisheries has prompted an increase in sea cucumber aquaculture, but it is expanding without knowledge on a range of social-ecological aspects, new research argues. Photo: H. Eriksson
Sea cucumbers found in tropical coastal waters are fished to serve the Chinese dried seafood market, but sourced from some of the poorest coastal areas of the world. Today conventional fisheries for this high-value commodity are in trouble and many stocks are slipping towards degradation.

The rapid decline due to over-harvesting and growing market demand has prompted an increase in global sea cucumber aquaculture.

If, then, yes...
As part of this development, hatcheries have been established to supply communities with sea cucumbers for grow-out in village lagoons.

These types of enterprises are often promoted as a livelihood to coastal communities and as a booster of depleted fisheries. Without knowledge on a range of social-ecological aspects it is too early to say whether this is proceeding in a desirable direction.

But if social-ecological knowledge gaps can be overcome through research and dissemination of best-practice examples, there is scope for successful farming.

Critical issues
This is the conclusion of a recent AMBIO article co-written by centre theme leader Max Troell. Together with colleagues from Sweden, South Africa and the United Kingdom, Troell has looked at sea cucumber farming in the Western Indian Ocean and identified a number of critical issues that need to be considered for further expansion.

"The farming of sea cucumbers is an example of a relatively new coastal aquaculture activity and it is therefore important to get it right from the start by applying a broader governance perspective that includes linkages to fisheries and socio-economic dynamics" says Max Troell, researcher at centre partner The Beijer Institute.

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Genetic risks and inbreeding
The authors stress the need for improved understanding of several aspects, ranging from genetic impacts on wild stocks to livelihood issues. For example, translocation and artificial breeding programmes within aquaculture generally constitute a genetic risk to natural populations, and sea cucumber farming makes no exception. Translocation of non-native sea cucumber species from India to atolls in the Maldives is already a fact.

"The effect of such relatively large-scale translocations is unknown and no detailed information is presently available," says lead author Hampus Eriksson. He is a PhD student at the Department of Systems Ecology, Stockholm University and part of a new US $ 13 million research programme on global seafood resources.

Loopholes and inflated promises
In the absence of standards and protocols for responsible sea cucumber farming, the authors recommend operators and legislators to use standards developed for other aquaculture organisms as a benchmark for sustainable management.
For example, standards for inspection and equipment to detect early signs of pathogens or disease, issuing health certificates or quarantine measures are outlined by WWF and the World Organization for Animal Health for the abalone shellfish. These are routines that should be applied for sea cucumber farming as well.

"Unless farmed in ponds, which we know have problems of its own from prawn farms, sea cucumbers must be farmed in coastal lagoons. We are particularly worried about how hatcheries operating in relatively simple conditions can prevent disease outbreaks that may spread to these natural environments" Eriksson explains.
"Enterprises that receive juveniles for grow out must put pressure on hatchery operators to make sure that appropriate quarantine measures have been put in place before animals are introduced to their lagoons," Eriksson adds.

Weak governance limits potential
Despite the large potential for generating benefits to coastal communities only few success stories exist. Instead there are examples of how communities have been marginalized in enterprises and impacted negatively from the activity.
"Weak governance situations can potentially limit this activity to live up to its potential," says Eriksson.

The study also identifies inflated promises when promoting sea cucumber farming as problematic.

"There is no room for another 'boom and bust' industry that further jeopardizes people's access to coastal resources and services. A precautionary approach is called for," Troell says.

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Eriksson, H. Robinson, G. Slater, M.J. and Troell, M. 2011. Sea Cucumber Aquaculture in the Western Indian Ocean: Challenges for Sustainable Livelihood and Stock Improvement. AMBIO, Published on line 20 October 2011. DOI: 10.1007/s13280-011-0195-8

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Max Troell is a system ecologist mainly working with environmental problems associated with aquaculture. This work focuses on inter-linkages between aquaculture and fisheries, on different spatial scales.
Hampus Eriksson is a PhD at Dept. of Systems Ecology, Stockholm University. He comes from a fisheries background and have an interest in invertebrate fisheries — particularly tropical sea cucumbers.


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