Deep Sea Delicacy

An undersea look at the lifecycle of Sea Cucumbers— the ‘earthworms of the ocean’.

Dan Bowen shows off a Giant Red Sea cucumber. His company, salve Green Ocean Sea Cucumbers, as well as one other company, have applied to farm the sea cucumbers in Baynes Sound and are awaiting approval.

Photo by Boomer Jerritt

In the deep sub-tidal waters of Baynes Sound, there is a small army working quietly and efficiently to do their part to keep the ocean clean.  They are relentless in their commitment to the environment.   They ‘git ‘er dun!’ without ever standing outside City Hall waving placards or signing petitions.

Scientists refer to the individuals in this underwater army as Parastichopus californicus… but they are more commonly known as ‘sea cucumbers’ or—to be even more specific—Giant Red Sea Cucumbers.

Despite the fact that they are named after something you would put on a salad, sea cucumbers are, in fact, a species of animal, not a plant.  They are ‘echinoderms’—marine animals that have an endoskeleton just below the skin that is made up of microscopic bone-like tissue.  There are five classes of echinoderms, including sea stars (starfish), brittle stars, sea urchins and sand dollars, sea lilies and sea cucumbers.

The Giant Red Sea ‘Cuc’ has a leathery soft skin that is red to dark brown with orange-colored fleshy pointed projections on the dorsal (top) side.  Unlike others in their class, they are shaped like cucumbers, not stars.  They are a relatively primitive organism without eyes or brains.  They have a mouth and 15 filter feeding ‘arms’ at one end and an anus at the other.  In between the entrance and the exit points are dozens of hydraulically-powered tube feet that assist with locomotion. The sea cucs’ sole purpose in life:  eat, poop, grow, reproduce, then repeat, repeat, repeat.

Another fascinating fact that you should know: to protect itself when confronted with extreme danger—such as a predatory sea star, a hungry otter or a sea lion—the sea cucumber will eject its internal organs out of its anus, distracting predators with the sticky viscera.  Then they use their five long muscle bands to wriggle and writhe to try to escape.  This amazing animal then reabsorbs the organs during its winter dormant stage and regenerates them.

Today, as it has for millennia, this bottom dwelling detritivore—that is an animal that eats dead things—plays an important ecological role in (quite literally) the very bottom of the ocean food chain.  Sea cucumbers consume massive amounts of organic matter such as fungi, plankton and other decomposing material that sinks to the ocean floor and, through their digestion, they ‘recycle’ and return it back into the food chain—like earthworms in your compost bin, but for the ocean.  They convert anaerobic matter into useful nutrients that are then recycled by many other aquatic animals.

With full-grown adults reaching about 50-centimetres in length, the Red Giants are the largest of about 30 indigenous species of sea cucumbers in British Columbia’s coastal waters and they are the only ones that are commercially harvested.

The Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) has issued 85 Individual Quota (IQ) sea cucumber fisheries licences.  The annual fishery is from October 1 through November 30 and it is conducted with scuba divers hand picking the plumpest of this ocean delicacy.  From 2003 to 2010, the average annual harvest was 1.2 million pounds.  In recent years, the price-per-pound paid to fisherman was as high as $6, the majority of which is exported to Asia.  Records show, however, that wild fisheries harvested at this rate are not sustainable over the long term and wild populations are decreasing in numbers.

“Seafood production is a significant sector to BC’s economy, with $1.4 billion worth produced and $960 million worth exported to 74 countries in 2010.  Locally, the shellfish sector alone is valued at over $28 million annually and produces more than half of all BC’s shellfish,” says John Watson, executive director of Comox Valley Economic Development.  “It’s a critical component to our food and beverage economy, with demonstrated opportunities for expansion to meet a growing demand for this type of product.”

While not common on Canadian dinner plates, research indicates that sea cucumbers as a food source have anti-cancer, anti-viral, and anti-gingivitis properties, and that they are higher in protein than most foods.  As such, they are highly valued in Asian cooking and for Traditional Chinese Medicine. Markets are primarily Southeast Asia, China, Hong Kong, and Korea.  Market demand and value is for both the skin and the five muscle tissue strips.

While China does have a thriving sea cucumber farming industry, those imported from BC are prized for their high quality, for exactly the same reasons that BC oysters are coveted by oyster aficionados around the world—the excellent growing conditions of our cool, clean waters.

While sea cucumber harvesting has been a viable industry in BC since the early 1980s, it is only in the last couple of years that most Vancouver Islanders even knew (or cared) that sea cucumbers even existed here.  Seemingly overnight, sea cucumbers have become almost as hotly debated as the proposed coal mine.  Why?  Because a couple of local businesses have proposed to start ‘farming’ sea cucumbers and there is a segment of the population that is vehemently opposed to any form of aquaculture expansion in Baynes Sound.

In addition to a couple of grassroots groups expressing their concerns, the Comox Valley Echo reported that several commercial fishing organizations—the Herring Industry Association Board, the BC Seafood Alliance, and the Underwater Harvesters Association—have all expressed a cautionary approach to the proposed sea cucumber operations to the Ministry of Forestry, Lands and Natural Resource Operations. All three organizations named the size of the proposed farms, combined with unknown environmental impacts, as top concerns.

At the same time, other organizations are heralding the idea.

“The BC Shellfish Grower’s Association supports any farming of seafood that is ecologically sustainable,” explains the association’s executive director, Roberta Stevenson.  “When it comes to the proposed sea cucumber project, we feel that it is very environmentally sound.  Sea cucumbers are a good quality protein source that is produced in a small amount of space, while cleaning the ocean floor.”

Stevenson doesn’t discount the fact that some groups and other industry stakeholders have good reason to be concerned about ecological health of the ocean, but she has a different point of view.

“We have huge problems with oceans world-wide, but farming sea cucumbers is not one of them,” warns Stevenson.  “Ocean acidification is a threat of a magnitude that we have never experienced before and I am disappointed that people are being distracted by issues like sea cucumbers when there are bigger issues at stake.  If the proverbial sky is falling, it is not because of sea cucumbers!  It is because the chemical make-up of our oceans is changing… and we need to do something to change that.  I hate to see this [fear mongering] take away from the bigger picture.  These sea cucumbers are an indigenous species that has been quite over-fished and they will be farmed in a sustainable manner. People visualize that the sea cucumbers will be down there in massive amounts.  In reality, the density is always dictated by a healthy environment—they won’t compete for space.”

As a writer, I have a vivid imagination and I started to envision huge underwater ‘corrals’ of sea cucumbers, like cattle feedlots, and I was aghast at the very thought.  That said, before I form an opinion I research the facts—rather than educate myself by reading the Letters to the Editor in the local papers.  So I contacted Dan Bowen, president of Courtenay-based Green Ocean Sea Cucumbers, for a frank discussion on sea cucumber ‘farming.’

“Our company is one of two that have applied to the Ministry for two [separate] large tenures of ‘on the bottom’ sea cucumber aquaculture,” explains Bowen.  “I speak only for the Baynes Sound North application.  Our Adaptive Management Plan (ADP) took over two years to complete and our biologist, Lora Tryon has created a science-based approach to the introduction of this new and innovative aquaculture industry on tenure.

“Our goal is to conduct a research and development project to look at the social, environmental and economic feasibility of sea cucumber aquaculture.  The application was accepted as ‘complete and satisfactory’ in October 2011.  The approval process now involves both the federal and provincial governing agencies for the licence and the tenure.  This process will be moving into the new year with formal presentations to these agencies.

“The Green Ocean concept to aquaculture as established by our team is based on sound environmental principles including aquatic enhancement,” says Bowen.  “We are proposing extensive aquaculture, rather than intensive aquaculture, and that allows the natural substrate environment to determine the natural population densities of sea cucumbers. With this method, there is no need for any kind of closed containment apparatus, such as pens, cages, or rafts, nor is there any need for supplemental feeding or foreshore activity or access.

“Sea cucumber habitat includes several native kelp species and we will enhance the nursery areas to create an oasis of green. Furthermore, the aquaculture area we are considering is situated in the sub-tidal zone well below the zero tide level. As such, there are no conflicts with any other tenures… be it recreational, environmental or commercial activities.”

Bowen clarifies that the sea cucumber juveniles they propose to out-plant are the very same species that are indigenous to these waters. Green Ocean must obtain a permit to collect and transfer healthy breeding stock in the winter or spring, and there must be a DFO observer on board to document the area and the number of brood stock taken.  Divers carefully hand pick adult cucumbers and transfer them to the Gartley Point Hatchery in Royston where they are encouraged to spawn.  When the spawn is complete, the adults are released back into the ocean.  Fertilized eggs would then be incubated as they develop into larvae. After about 70 days suspended in the water like plankton, they settle on the bottom as miniature juvenile sea cucumbers.

It takes about four months for the hatchlings to grow to a size that will ensure their survival at sea.  To initially protect them from predators, the baby sea cucumbers are placed in a specially designed space in the centre of a pyramid-shaped bag of oyster shells (held together by netting).  These nursery ‘pods’ would then be strategically placed on the ocean floor.  In addition to providing a refuge for baby sea cucs, these oyster reef pods quickly become home to algae, fungus and other natural microscopic organisms that become the food for sea cucumbers.  In the first year, the young sea cucs will remain close to this refuge area before they begin to venture out from the nursery to begin their free-range period.  Rest assured they don’t go too far—they only meander about three to four metres distance in random directions in a single day.  It then takes about 24 to 36 months for them to grow to a size suitable for harvest.

Referring to concerns about over population, Bowen explains that, just as a cattle farmer would not expect a good result if he (or she) put too many cows on a single pasture, aquaculturalists know it would not make good economic or ecological sense to ‘plant’ excessive populations of sea cucumbers in Baynes Sound.  Not only will the sea cucumber stock be well managed and monitored, as part of the management plan, research will be undertaken and shared with other aquaculturists, the DFO, and educational institutions.

The company is working closely with research institutions to further develop and promote the science-base needed to create both a strong industry and sound ecology.

“We are pleased to receive conditional support from the Comox Valley Project Watershed and the Comox Valley Conservation Strategy Group, based on our scientific approach and research strategy,’ adds Bowen.

Two rumors that Bowen would like to see laid to rest:

Baynes Sound will not become filled with toxic sea cucumber feces.  Quantity in equals quantity out, with the only difference being that the excrement is a nutrient-rich material that the millions of microorganisms can eat. Truth is, sea cucs are as beneficial to the ocean as earthworms are to your garden and they serve an important role in the “marine food web” in Baynes Sound.

Sea cucumbers will not become a plague and they will not crawl onto land, like slugs, to eat your lettuce!

Bowen wraps up by explaining that within the proposed 155-hectare tenure, only one per cent of the area will be used for the on-bottom nurseries—the rest will remain untouched to allow for the natural movement of the sea cucumbers as they mature.  All research, planting, maintenance and harvest would be done with boats and divers.  This type of aquaculture is considered very low impact and is called a ‘green zone’ because it is like a garden.

Eric Gant, president of Mantee Holdings Ltd. and a partner in Green Ocean Sea Cucumbers, stands firmly behind the company’s commitment to environmental responsible aquaculture.  He has decades of experience, considering that he helped to pioneer the sea cucumber and geoduck (a type of clam) fisheries industry in BC.  He was the founding president of the Pacific Sea Cucumber Harvesting Association (www.pscha.org) and a founding director of the Underwater Harvesters Association (www.geoduck.org).

“When I first helped to pioneer these fisheries, the natural geoduck concentrations in the Baynes Sound area were 10 times higher than they are now,” says Gant.  “Today, natural stocks are diminished, due to human activities and because they are being over harvested.  We need to embrace aquaculture to bring the ecosystem back into balance.

“Sea cucumbers (and geoducks) are especially beneficial to the ocean’s ecology in modern-day society because there is a huge nutrient run-off resulting from human occupation along the shorelines.  This run-off causes excessive amounts of algae to grow in the water, upsetting the natural ecology.  These animals help bring down the concentration algae in the water.

“It is ironic,” Gant adds, that in some cases, “it is the people who are contributing and causing the pollution who are against us planting these beneficial animals.  We want to put back a healthy concentration to maintain a healthy ocean in a free range, natural environment.  Based on both experience and science, I have no doubt that this form of aquaculture is the most environmentally beneficial food production operation—on land or sea—that I am aware of in the world.”

For more information visit: www.greenoceanseacucumbers.com.