Friday, July 17, 2015

Sea Cucumber Harvest Ban

On the 26th of June 2015, the Hawaii Board of Land and Natural Resources announced that it would be illegal to harvest any species of sea cucumber from Hawaii State waters for 120 days. This emergency ruling has been implemented to immediately stop the continued depletion of sea cucumber numbers, after an investigation by officers from the DLNR Division of Conservation and Resources Enforcement confirmed that a new commercial fishery had begun (Department of Land and Natural Resources, 2015).

(Clayton Wakida, KITV, 2015)

Sea cucumbers along with other echinoderms are described as a “keystone species” as they play a major role in structuring many marine ecosystems (Skillings, Bird and Toonen, 2014). They work as the “vacuum cleaners” of the sea floor consuming organic detritus (waste) and help to prevent the growth of slime algae that can damage coral reefs (Skillings, Bird and Toonen, 2011).  Sea cucumbers like many other species are also the target of artisanal or commercial fishing activities. Stocks of sea cucumbers are being continually depleted, with the more valuable species being depleted first (Skillings et al., 2011). Studies have shown the loss of sea cucumbers from an ecosystem can result in the hardening of sands around reefs, which can lead to the loss of soft bottom species, increased growth of micro and macro algae and reduced nutrient processing (Skillings et al., 2014).

Black sea cucumber. Image Hawai'i Institute of Marine Biology
Why is removing them such a problem? Little is known about the growth rate, longevity, or sexual maturity of these animals. The few studies of wild populations of sea cucumbers suggest that these are very long-lived animals with slow growth and reproductive rates.  These are characteristics that make a species very sensitive to overharvest (Skillings et al.,2014).  Studies conducted on species of sea cucumber that are harvested for consumption, primarily Holothuria whitmaei and Holothuria (Microthele) nobilis, suggest that it can take one sea cucumber 10-35 years to reach sexual maturity (Shiell and Uthicke, 2005). Sea cucumbers show no visible sings of ageing and theoretically in perfect conditions they could live forever. However in a wild population the likelihood of this happening is very rare. It is estimated that that the average life span of a sea cucumber is approximately 40-60 years (Shiell and Uthicke, 2005). 

Black sea cucumber. Image Hawai'i Institute of Marine Biology
Why has the harvesting of sea cucumber become such a problem? Sea cucumbers have been harvested for consumption for over 1000 years in China and India (James and James, 1994).  These traditional practices only harvested a small amount of sea cucumber for consumption. This was not a problem because they were not depleting the stocks to a point that they could not recover (Friedman, 2010). The commercialization of the sea cucumber, primarily as ‘beche-de-mer’ the dried form, in the Asia-Pacific region saw a spike in the amount of sea cucumbers being harvested. As this industry was unregulated, sea cucumbers were being harvested in huge number in the early 1800's but the trade declined by the early 20th century as the populations were reduced to a point that there were insufficient numbers to support a trade or to replenish the stock numbers (Ward, 1972; Moore, 2003). 

Over a hundred years later, in the 1980's, another boom in the harvesting of sea cucumbers occurred, as there was a spike in the demand from the Chinese communities around the world (Friedman, 2010).  Today, the demand from the Chinese communities around the world is still increasing. Even with the introduction of an aquaculture industry, the demand for sea cucumber greatly outweighs the supply. One kilogram of sea cucumber has been recorded selling for US $2,950. This has caused sea cucumbers to be harvested from wild populations in numbers that have not been seen before (Friedman, 2010).  If this trend is to continue, irreversible damage will be done to the sea cucumber populations resulting in the extinction of many species (Purcell, 2010).

Written by Jardine Gunn

Department of Land and Natural Resources, (2015). 06/26/15 - Sea Cucumber Harvesting Banned For 120 Days in Hawaii. [online] Available at: [Accessed 7 Jul. 2015].

Friedman, K., Eriksson, H., Tardy, E. and Pakoa, K. (2010). Management of sea cucumber stocks: patterns of vulnerability and recovery of sea cucumber stocks impacted by fishing. Fish and Fisheries, 12(1), pp.75-93.

James, D.B., and James, P.S.B.R. (1994).  A hand book on Indian sea-cucumbers. CMFRI Special Publications, 59, pp. 47

Moore, C. (2003). New Guinea: Crossing Boundaries and History. University of Hawaii Press, Honolulu.

Purcell, S., Lovatelli, A., Vasconcellos, M. and Ye, Y. (2010). Managing sea cucumber fisheries with an ecosystem approach. Rome: Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations.

Shiell, G. and Uthicke, S. (2005). Reproduction of the commercial sea cucumber Holothuria whitmaei [Holothuroidea: Aspidochirotida] in the Indian and Pacific Ocean regions of Australia. Marine Biology, 148(5), pp.973-986.

Skillings, D., Bird, C. and Toonen, R. (2011). Gateways to Hawai 'i: genetic population structure of the tropical sea cucumber Holothuria atra. Journal of Marine Biology, pp.1-16.

Skillings, D., Bird, C. and Toonen, R. (2014). Comparative population structure of two edible Indo-Pacific coral reef sea cucumbers (Echinodermata: Holothuroidea). Bulletin of Marine Science, 90(1), pp. 359-378.

Ward, R. (1972). The Pacific Beche-de-mer trade with specific reference to Fiji. In: Man in the Pacific: Essays on Geographical Change in Pacific Islands (ed. R. Ward). Oxford,  Clarendon Press. pp. 91-123


Clayton Wakida, K. (2015). Sea cucumber harvesting banned for 4 months in Hawaii. [online] KITV. Available at: [Accessed 10 Jul. 2015].

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