By William Ysaguirre
Staff ReporterSea cucumbers are not exactly daily fare on most Belizean’s diet, but they are prized as a delicacy and for reputed medicinal properties in many parts of Asia and China, fetching a premium price of up to US$150 per pound for the dried product on international markets. This is why the Fisheries Department announced a temporary ban on the issuance of any new fishing license for sea cucumber last Friday, December 27.
A new study published on October 1, 2013, has shown that sea cucumber extract kills up to 95 percent of breast cancer cells, 90 percent of melanoma cells, 95 percent of liver cancer cells and 88 percent of lung cancer cells in vitro. Researchers have identified a key compound a triterpenoid known as frondoside A, responsible for sea cucumber’s anti-cancer properties.
The extract also stimulates the immune system against cancer and impedes key processes required for metastasis. It’s all new to Western medical researchers, who do not yet understand fully how it works, but the sea cucumber has been used in Chinese medicine for centuries.
Belize exported about 400,000 pounds of dried sea cucumber last year, for which local fishermen were paid on average $4.00- $8.00 per pound for the raw product, Fisheries Officer Ariel Castaneda explained.
The sea cucumber species found in Belizean waters, Holothuria mexicana, unlike the Queen conch, is not yet listed by CITES (United Nations’ Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species), but Belize’s Fisheries Department still wants to ensure that this valuable resource is harvested in a sustainable manner, just like conch. For this reason, the Department conducts an annual stock assessment of the sea cucumber population in Belizean waters, just like queen conch, to determine how much can be harvested without depleting the reproductive capacity of this resource, before setting this year’s harvest quota.
Castaneda said presently only one fishing cooperative, the Rio Grande Fishing Cooperative, has pioneered the harvesting and exporting of sea cucumbers down south. This is because most fishermen don’t have the technical know-how or resources to invest in the equipment required to prepare sea cucumbers for export. The sea cucumber must first be sun-dried, cooked twice, and freeze-dried before it is ready for export.
Local sea cucumbers typically grow between 10 and 12 inches. Unlike conch, as of now there’s no limit on what size can be harvested, Castaneda explained.
The demand for this valuable product is such that other producers in the region have sought to not rely on marine fisheries alone, and have tried to farm sea cucumbers by aquaculture.
Farmed sea cucumbers typically don’t grow much bigger than 8-10 cm (4 inches), Castaneda said, and they don’t have the defense mechanisms to survive in the open sea.
Other countries such as Panama, Venezuela and Nicaragua have experimented with sea cucumber fisheries, but Panama subsequently banned it as unsustainable, even though some illegal fishing continues.
Venezuela shut down sea cumber fishing in 1995, but an illegal catch of 500kilos (1,100 lbs), with a reported value of US$150,000, was seized in 1996.
China reports importing 0.5 tonne (500kgs) of sea cucumber from Venezuela in 2005.
Sea cucumbers belong to the same family as starfish and sea urchins, and there are about 1,250 different species to be found in oceans around the world.
Those caught in the Pacific and Asian waters are prized as a delicacy. The harvested product is called “trepang”, “beche de mer” or “balate.”
The animals are bottom-feeders, like shrimp, consuming tiny bits of organic matter they find on the ocean floor.
They can be found in depths from 6 to 60 feet of water, although some species inhabit the deep ocean floor, where they can be found in huge herds.
They are also at the bottom of the food chain, and only a few survive to adulthood as the eggs and young larvae are food for fish, crabs and other marine animals.
By William Ysaguirre