Sea cucumbers are high-value marine invertebrates that used to abound in the country’s coastal waters. They are well-known as food and are highly recognized for their ecological and pharmaceutical values. There are about 200 sea cucumber species in the country, which include 40 high-value species.

sea cucumber

High value species of sea cucumbers: A. Holothuria fuscogilva (teatfish), B. Holothuria scabra (sandfish), C. Phyllophorus proteus(ball sea cucumber) and D. Bohadschia marmorata (chalkfish). (Photo by DOST-PCAARRD GIA funded Sea Cucumber Program)

The Philippines was once a top producer of dried sea cucumbers (also known as beche-de-mer or trepang) in the 1980s. With its decreasing annual production of less than 900 tons, the country ranks as the world’s eighth sea cucumber producer (FAO, 2015). This was due to unregulated harvesting and trade. The bulk of Philippine sea cucumber products is undersized lower-value species, poorly processed and lowly priced. A national program on sea cucumber was developed to restore the fishery and bring back a viable economic activity. The program aims to establish a sustainable and globally competitive sea cucumber industry, which provides equitable economic benefits to various stakeholders and maintain the productivity and biodiversity of the sea cucumber fishery in the country. Two approaches were prioritized to attain this goal. The first approach is to increase production of premium-grade size sea cucumbers through public-private partnership coupled with grow-out production systems engaging commercial and local fishers with the support of the local government.

Harnessing S&T for a sustainable and competitive sea cucumber industry 1

Holothuria scabra or sandfish in its natural environment. It can now be cultured in hatchery. (Photo by Jay R. Gorospe)

The country is now able to culture sandfish, Holothuria scabra (a species of sea cucumber) in the hatchery. To accelerate production of sandfish juveniles for grow-out, a partnership was forged with the Palawan Aquaculture Corporation and Alson’s Aquaculture Corporation, to integrate sandfish culture in their hatchery and nursery production operations. Physical structures were modified to fit the requirements for sandfish culture. At present, the private companies are capable of producing up to 10,000 release-size (>3grams) sandfish juveniles per spawning batch. Low cost ocean nursery systems were developed to reduce the cost and diversify systems for juvenile production.  These are made of inexpensive and readily available materials not only to commercial hatcheries but to small-scale growers as well. Floating hapas are used for mass rearing of post settled juveniles to release size. The viability and adaptability of the floating hapa system for small-scale growers were demonstrated by field trials conducted with community partners in Anda, Pangasinan; Coron, Palawan and Maasim, Sarangani Province. The development of ocean floating hapa system has opened up possibilities for involving small-scale growers in the scaling–up of the production of sandfish juveniles. The bottom-set hapa cages and bottom-set trays are being developed to address the seasonal constraints in the use of the floating hapa system. These are established near the sea floor making it less susceptible to salinity and temperature fluctuations and mechanical stress brought about by strong wave and wind action at the water surface. A pilot communal sea ranch has been established in Bolinao, Pangasinan in collaboration with the Samahan ng Maliliit na Mangingisda ng Victory, Inc. (SMMVI) to optimize growth and survival of juvenile sandfish to reach harvestable size. The SMMVI periodically harvests sandfish that are greater than 320 grams in the sea ranching. Given the right environmental conditions and governance mechanisms, sea ranch of sandfish may be a supplemental source of livelihood to coastal villagers and can be part of the development of production clusters towards commercial production of cultured sandfish.

Harnessing S&T for a sustainable and competitive sea cucumber industry 2

Researchers checking bottom set cages (Photo by Elsie Tech)

The integration of sandfish culture technology to existing marine aquaculture facilities and the availability of low-cost nursery systems opened opportunities for its grow-out culture. Sandfish culture may potentially reduce harvesting pressure of wild sandfish population and allow them to rest and recuperate. For a sustainable sea cucumber fishery, production of cultured sandfish and postharvest processing of sea cucumbers should be complemented with effective fisheries management and good aquaculture practices. Results of the National Sea Cucumber R&D Program facilitated the eventual finalization and approval of two important policies relevant to resource management – the BFAR Fisheries Administrative Order on Size Regulation for Sea Cucumber Collection and Trade and the Bureau of Agriculture and Fisheries Product Standards (BAFPS) Philippine National Standard (PNS) for Dried Sea Cucumber.  An important practice is to follow these policies on size regulation for sea cucumber collection and trade. It is now prohibited to gather, catch or trade fresh sea cucumbers that are below 320 grams or if in dried form less than two inches. To support the sustainable development of natural and culture production systems and with a vision of an eco-labeled production system, genetic studies using molecular approaches have delineated the population genetic structure of sandfish. This is important in developing a framework for stock enhancement and restoration of natural populations. Molecular approaches provide a means to monitor and ascertain that quality broodstocks are available in the hatchery and in the wild. The second approach is to produce high quality trepang. The Philippines is now able to produce high quality trepang.  The technology package for postharvest processing of sea cucumber to produce Class A premium grade trepang with reduced microbial content, improved shelf life and no foul odor commands a higher price in both local and international markets.

Harnessing S&T for a sustainable and competitive sea cucumber industry 3

High quality dried sea cucumber or trepang (Photo by Elsie Tech)

The postharvest processing line is composed of a degutting table, mechanical cleaner and hybrid dryer that is currently being tested in coastal communities. Results have shown that the dried product could meet Philippine National Standards (PNS), with buying prices at the class A level. Initial profitability analysis has shown that using the hybrid dryer alone, gross income from dried sea cucumber could increase by 77% due to improvements in quality of the final product. Field testing has been done with partners in Coron, Palawa; Bolinao, Pangasinan and Morong, Bataan. In advancing the interest of the country’s sea cucumber industry, the Philippine Council for Agriculture, Aquatic and Natural Resources Research and Development of the Department of Science and Technology (DOST-PCAARRD) has developed the Industry Strategic S&T Program (ISP) for Sea Cucumber. Initiated in 2012, the ISPs for various agri-aqua commodities, has been conceived by the government through PCAARRD to provide the vision and direction for all actors and key players in the agriculture, aquatic, and natural resources sectors in the Philippines. Aside from sandfish, the culture of other high value species i.e. Holothuria fuscogilva (white teat fish) and Phyllophorus proteus (ball sea cucumber)  and  Bohadschia marmorata (chalkfish) is being developed. Each of the ISPs pinpoints the gap in a particular commodity where science and technology is supposed to make a difference to boost the industry. From the ISPs, PCAARRD coined its SIPAG, or the Strategic Industry (S&T) Program for Agri-Aqua Growth, the Council’s battle cry, as it commits to provide the agri-aqua sectors with science-based know-how and tools that will enable the said sectors to raise productivity to world-class standards. SIPAG embodies the Council’s commitment to Outcome One of DOST in a bid to ensure that the fruits of S&T activities for the said sectors will be a blessing for every Juan, in keeping with the President’s social contract. Meanwhile, PCAARRD’s Farms and Industries Encounter through the Science and Technology Agenda or FIESTA, another technology diffusion strategy of the Council, typifies a fiesta atmosphere created to enhance agri-aqua technology transfer and commercialization. PCAARRD uses FIESTA as a technology transfer strategy, inasmuch as the venue can effectively showcase the various R&D initiatives of government research institutions in the form of agri-aqua technology or products. by Marie Antonette Juinio-Meñez, UP MSI and Preciosa C. Samonte, DOST-PCAARRD S&T Media Service