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Farming Sea Cucumbers in Madagascar…for Economic Hope and Conservation

A sea cucumber in Madagascar
A sea cucumber, an increasingly popular delicacy in China. Photograph by Brian Jones, courtesy Blue Ventures

By  Taylor Mayol, Blue Ventures

Look at a map and find Madagascar, the fourth biggest island on Earth, just off the coast of east Africa. Focus on the dry southwest and find the town of Toliara, capital of this impoverished region.

Now imagine a drive northwards through the searing heat along a bumpy, sandy trail. You’re hugging the coast, flanking the peculiar yet alluring Spiny Forest, one of the planet’s most threatened forest ecosystems. You hold on tight as your 4×4 surges forward over rocks and nearly becomes planted in the deep, fine sand.

To the west lie crystal clear emerald waters and vast lagoons fringed by one of the Indian Ocean’s largest yet least known coral reefs. You continue like this for eight hours, jaw gaping at the exaggerated color and beauty of untouched beaches around you.

Finally, you arrive in the village of Andavadoaka, the heart of Velondriake, one of the Indian Ocean’s largest community managed marine conservation areas. The people here, the Vezo, are true experts in conservation. In fact, they have been taking care of their marine environment since 2006, a remarkable feat given how heavily they depend on the ocean – for cultural identity, income, and basic survival. And the Vezo are amongst Madagascar’s poorest, a stark statistic in a country that has the highest prevalence of household poverty in Africa.

Velondriake’s Vezo have created permanent and temporary marine reserves, and even have an official governing body with elected representatives from 25 villages, responsible for making decisions and passing local laws that forbid destructive fishing practices like poison fishing. Although these laws are imperative for marine health, they are not enough to combat future environmental degradation given high population growth in the region. The creation of new, inventive sources of income that don’t depend on fishing are crucial.

That’s easier said than done in such an environmentally inhospitable and underdeveloped region. So what do these people do if they want to scale back fishing? How can they feed their families and make a living without overexploiting the sea? The answer is found in a curious marine invertebrate. Enter the remarkable –  yet distinctly uncharismatic –  sea cucumber.

Farming sea cucumbers.
Farming sea cucumbers. Photograph by Antoine Rougier, courtesy Blue Ventures
Locals are learning to farm the sea
Locals are learning to farm the sea. Photograph by Antoine Rougier, courtesy Blue Ventures

Sea cucumbers are bottom-dwelling echinoderms – close relatives of starfish – that once littered ocean floors throughout the tropics. Much like a garden earthworm, they play a crucial role in recycling nutrients in sediments, forming the bedrock of complex marine food chains. These bizarre creatures have been consumed in Asia for centuries, prized for their purported medicinal properties and touted as edible aphrodisiacs once reserved for the wealthy. Yet China’s economic boom has meant more people can afford this delicacy, fueling skyrocketing international demand.

Predictably, wild sea cucumber populations have plummeted, pushing fishers to adopt ever more aggressive methods of harvesting these docile animals. In recent years, fishers have embraced the use of SCUBA gear to target even those sea cucumbers living in deeper water –  a practice banned in Madagascar but poorly enforced. Now, sea cucumber stocks have crashed in nearly all of the world’s accessible tropical seas.

A 2012 EU commissioned study of Madagascar’s sea cucumber trade showed exactly this, with an 85% drop in yield since the fishery’s historical peak. The near loss of an entire species, and the cash that goes with it, has enormous implications for Andavadoaka’s Vezo and delicate ecosystem equilibrium.

Fresh Hope

But don’t fear. This isn’t just another doom-and-gloom story about how the oceans are being stripped to satisfy human appetite. There is a new glimmer of hope for both sea cucumbers and Vezo communities. Locally managed aquaculture farms have begun sprouting up in shallow bays around Velondriake, introducing environmentally sustainable sea cucumber ranching as a simple source of cash for the Vezo.

A partnership between a commercial seafood exporter and Toliara’s marine institute uses patented technology to produce juvenile sea cucumbers for sale to fishers. Community farming groups then grow these thimble-size animals in basic mesh farming pens, adjacent to each village. Since sea cucumbers feed off the ocean floor, the process requires no feed, just pen maintenance and a vigilant eye to ward off poachers.

A woman in Madagascar who works in sea cucumber aquaculture
New economic opportunity. Photograph by Antoine Rougier, Blue Ventures

After about nine months, these tiny creatures reach adult size – the bulk of a large sub sandwich – and are sold on to exporters for around US $2.50 per sea cucumber. This smooth system links these isolated communities to otherwise hard to reach global markets.

Sea cucumbers are expensive, selling for hundreds, even thousands, of dollars per kilogram at their final point of sale. This means farmers in Velondriake, who previously lived on less than a dollar fifty a day, are now increasing their incomes. Currently, each farmer group makes an additional US $30 per month, with a growth forecast that will double this profit in the coming months and continue to increase in coming years. There are now three sea cucumber farms in Velondriake, operated by almost 200 farmers.

Perhaps most importantly, 48% of these farmers are women, an unexpected achievement in a heavily patriarchal society.

Independent Business

Our team of aquaculture technicians trains farmers and assists families with running their farms as independent businesses. We also facilitate small business trainings, and now fishers are reinvesting money earned in education, bulk purchases of rice and expanding their farms. We have worked in the region since 2003, and realize that community conservation must be anchored in social business approaches in order to incentivize sustainable local conservation action.

Now, if you visit one of these sea cucumber farming communities, you can look around at the breathtaking bay with pure white sandbars breaking the surface and the brightly painted sailing dug-out canoes, and know that the poverty in the backdrop is not infinite.

Baby sea cucumbers.
Baby sea cucumbers. Photograph by Antoine Rougier, courtesy Blue Ventures

Perhaps best of all, you can look out to sea, and see a community-built guard tower, occupied by a farmer charged with watching over the precious and lucrative sea cucumbers, and know that the community is in this business together, for themselves and their marine environment.

Intertwining small business development, the sea, and local leadership in conservation can boost biodiversity and inject cash into some of the most remote places on Earth. Let’s embrace this approach and get more fishers farming sustainably in the sea.

Blue Ventures is a British marine conservation NGO that has been working on community conservation in Madagascar for the last decade.

The aquaculture project is generously supported by NorgesVel.

Comments

  1. Iqbal Hassen
    Sri Lanka
    October 9, 3:12 am

    We have been harvesting wild sea cucumber processing and exporting for many many years from our Region in sri Lanka.
    if there is any one interested in doing this on a joint venture with us ,we would like to Discuss. there is two sea cucumber hatcheries not very advanced in our region. We also have acess to many abandoned prawn farms.

  2. Gio De la Cruz
    mexico
    March 20, 5:31 pm

    I am looking for a supplier in the costal of mexico … you can contact me at my email
    thanks and regards to all

  3. Faiz
    Maldives
    March 20, 12:45 am

    Want to import baby sea cucumber to maldives

  4. John Guswel
    Micronesia
    March 15, 5:56 am

    I am representing a community that interested in Farming Sea Cucumber those that salable in the asian market. we’re located in the Western Pacific and we had a huge water that suitable for this kind of Farming. however, we’re looking for a specialist/expert in Farming this kind of species to help us start up our farming. if anyone who had the “know How” in this and interested in this, please do contact me at the following:

    John Guswel
    P.O Box 884
    Colonia, Yap
    Federated States of Micronesia 96943

    Tel# 691 350-2711/8755
    cel# 691 950-3095

    email: jguswel@mail.fm

    Thank you and look forward to your response!

    John

  5. Twalib Twahir
    Jinja, Uganda
    February 27, 6:59 am

    Looks delicious!! But can they be harvested in my hometown Mombasa. I love culinary, and I would not like to miss them in my favorite dishes. “yummy”

  6. BH Teo
    Malaysia
    February 3, 8:38 am

    Please contact me at ji.yenfang@yahoo.com

  7. BH Teo
    Malaysia
    February 3, 8:33 am

    I will to import sea cucumber from Madagascar, welcome Madagascar seacucumber farmer or exporter to contact me.

  8. Menake Dissanaike
    Sri Lanka
    January 23, 5:38 am

    Hi there

    We are the first commercially successful sea cucumber hatchery (Holothuria scabra) in Sri Lanka. At the moment we have done three successful spawning from November 2013 and are having juveniles of 2-3g at this time. We are planning to work with the local farms and also export juveniles to the world market.

    Anybody interested can get in touch with me on info@mirclepets.net, sales@miraclepets.net

    thanks
    Menake Dissanaike

  9. octavio
    Mexico
    December 11, 2013, 12:11 am

    Taylor Mayol,

    how can i contact such farms?

    Thanks

  10. Mahmoud Raafat
    Suez, Egypt
    November 22, 2013, 4:28 pm

    Antoine Rougier, how can i contact you, My mail is mr_suez2007@yahoo.com
    please send me information about live sea cucumbers suppliers or farms

  11. Antoine Rougier
    Madagascar/ UK
    October 29, 2013, 10:09 am

    Just a quick message to address the comments on prices of sea cucumbers: there is a little confusion about sea cucumber prices.
    The final market prices for this specie can be over USD 150 / Kg, but we’re talking about dried sea cucumbers. In 1 Kg of dried sea cucumber, for an average size, we can find 40 to 50 pieces.
    The farmers in this project are selling their sea cucumbers at a price around USD 2,5 / piece, so the equivalent of 1kg of dried sea cucumber on the Hong Kong market would represent 100 to 125 USD (40 to 50 pieces sold) of incomes for the farmers.
    I hope that with a better understanding of what we’re talking about in term of pricing fresh/live and dried ready to consume, the margins and profits seem more balanced and fair.
    Antoine, Blue Ventures Conservation

  12. Mahmoud Raafat
    Suez, Egypt
    October 11, 2013, 8:18 am

    I want to know some sea cucumber farms in Asia (China, India,Taiwan, Singabore, Madghashker) because i want to buy living sea cucumber (adult, juveniles) of species Holothuria Scabra alive.
    please send me any informations about some farms ( location, email, website or phone number.

  13. rustam
    Wakatobi Indonesia
    October 1, 2013, 12:53 am

    im suprised sea cucumber can be farming. in my place Wakatobi indonesia sea cucumber become rare

  14. karimah
    August 12, 2013, 3:26 am

    follow me on twitter @puangpetta :)

  15. karimah
    indonesia
    August 12, 2013, 3:25 am

    hei..i’m a student of fisheries and marine science faculty of halu oleo unversity … nice post. :)

  16. Vanessa
    Colorado
    July 8, 2013, 2:29 pm

    Karen, sea slugs are a different invertebrate entirely belonging to the Phyla Mollusca. They are amazing in their own right researched for potentially life-saving chemicals they may excrete.

  17. Josie Varela
    Boone, Nc
    July 7, 2013, 10:25 pm

    Currently studying sustainable development at Appalachian State University, I look up to communities like this and hope to one day make a difference like this. It is good to know with all the negative effects humans have on the environment, there is still good being done. Although its a small scale, sustainability will catch on to a much larger impact. Keeping in mind the environment, economy and social equity,we can make a difference and change the world for better.

  18. Gitanjali Singhal
    Bangalore, India
    July 7, 2013, 10:23 am

    Just to get an idea of the kind of margins operating in this trade here, how much does a sea cucumber weigh? If, as Douglas Knapp says they are sold for thousands of dollars per kilogram, is this in a dried (dessicated and therefore dense) form? What is the cost of transport to the point of sale? And how large is the profit margin? It’s possible, though that there is no way for these people to sell their harvest directly?

  19. Deepak
    Chennai, India
    July 4, 2013, 3:49 am

    Wonderful job involving communities for economic growth! Can a field visit and session with technical staff be arranged? We can come upto MAdagascar!

  20. Pavinee
    Thailand
    July 3, 2013, 9:59 pm

    How can I contact him?

  21. Chuzzle
    USA
    July 3, 2013, 6:58 am

    How do you cook a sea cucumber? Anyone have a recipe? Yummmm!

  22. sreejesh k v
    India
    June 27, 2013, 6:46 am

    farming sea cucumber is indeed one way of preserving natural sea cucumber, plus these villagers feel economic liberty in years to come.

  23. sreejesh k v
    India
    June 27, 2013, 6:44 am

    farming sea cucumber indeed a great way of retaining sea cucumber which is naturally there, plus livelyhood of these villagers otherwise been very lowely paid, they feel great reprive the feel economic liberty in years to come.

  24. Karen J. Pottruff
    Toronto
    June 21, 2013, 10:49 am

    Are sea cucmbers also known as sea slugs?

  25. Douglas Knapp
    Germany
    June 15, 2013, 1:23 am

    Fair trade!
    “sold on to exporters for around US $2.50 per sea cucumber”Sea “cucumbers are expensive, selling for hundreds, even thousands, of dollars per kilogram at their final point of sale. ”

    These poor farmers are being badly used!

  26. Lois Mayol
    Carmel, California
    June 13, 2013, 1:07 pm

    Taylor is my granddaughter. You can imagine how very proud I am of her. However, this pride extends to those young people of her generation who have chosen to dedicate their lives to better the lives of those of others and while accomplishing that better the ecosytem of our planet. We have every reason to have hope. Congratulations, Taylor.