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World’s first sea cucumber fishery proves it’s sustainable

The Western Australia Sea Cucumber fishery is the world’s first to be certified to the Marine Stewardship Council’s global standard for a well-managed and sustainable fishery.

 • The certification marks the beginning of a sustainable sea cucumber market globally

 • The strong management of the Western Australian Sea Cucumber fishery sets it apart from concerns elsewhere in the world around overfishing of sea cucumber

 • The highly prized sea cucumber has ‘ocean cleaning’ properties which make protecting it vital for maintaining good ocean health

Patrick Caleo, Asia Pacific Director of the Marine Stewardship Council, said: “Congratulations to the Western Australia Sea Cucumber fishery for leading the way with this world-first certification. The vision and leadership shown in achieving this certification will inspire others to follow, representing a big win for the future of sea cucumber more broadly. The use of the MSC blue fish tick on sea cucumber products will be another big step in transforming the global sea cucumber market to a sustainable basis.”

The fishery operates off the Western Australia coastline and catches two species of sea cucumber, the deep-water redfish (Actinopyga echinites) and sand fish (Holothuria scabra). Products will be harvested, processed and marketed by Tasmanian Seafoods to Singapore, the Chinese mainland, Hong Kong SAR and Taiwan Province.

Speaking about the MSC certification of the Western Australian sea cucumber fishery, Mark Webster, CEO for Tasmanian Seafoods, said: “There’s a growing concern amongst consumers with sustainability and the environment. We wanted to prove that despite global concern with populations of sea cucumber, Australian sea cucumber fisheries are sustainable and well managed. Achieving MSC certification does this. 

“Western Australia sea cucumber is hand-harvested in remote and pristine waters, so there are very few interactions with the ocean floor and none with threatened or endangered species. Due to hand harvesting, the fishery has no incidental bycatch. We believe these conditions lead to a world-leading quality product.

“We plan to work with stakeholders to achieve MSC certification for all of Australia’s sea cucumber fisheries. Once achieved, all Australian sea cucumber can be sold with the MSC blue fish tick label.”

In-depth independent assessment

The certified fishery was independently assessed to the 28 principles for sustainable fishing set out in the MSC Fisheries Standard by auditors, Lloyd’s Register

Commenting on the assessment, Polly Burns, Interim Fisheries and Aquaculture Operations Manager at Lloyd’s Register, said: “The Western Australia Sea Cucumber fishery has demonstrated healthy populations of both its species of sea cucumbers. The impact of the hand gathering fishing method on the surrounding environment and the management of the fishery all meet the required scoring levels to achieve MSC certification. We are pleased that this outcome represents a world first for MSC certified sea cucumbers and look forward to continuing to report the fishery’s progress at annual surveillance audits.”

A growing need for a sustainable sea cucumber market

Over 1,400 species of sea cucumber are said to exist with at least seventy of these being commercially exploited in what is now a multi-billion-dollar trade. Nearly 80 per cent of sea cucumber exports globally are destined for Hong Kong SAR where they are then re-exported into mainland China and sold, typically as a dried product known as bêche de mer.*

In some parts of the world, the high demand and price of sea cucumber have led to increasing levels of illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing, a thriving illegal market trade and diminishing sea cucumber populations due to overfishing. With China’s population continuing to grow, the country’s middle class is projected to double, from 300 million in 2018 to 600 million by 2022.

Seth McCurry, MSC UK and Ireland Commercial Outreach Manager and sea cucumber expert, explains: “The upward financial mobility of China’s growing middle class will likely result in increasing demand for high-end delicacies like sea cucumber. Sustainable management of wild sea cucumber fisheries, such as that demonstrated by the Western Australian Sea Cucumber fishery, are critical to meet this demand.”

The importance of protecting ‘ocean cleaning’ sea cucumber

Sea cucumbers predominantly feed on organic marine waste and excrete vital nutrients for the marine environment. 

“This nutrient recycling and sediment redistribution are critical to maintaining productive and biodiverse ecosystems, like coral reefs. It also increases alkalinity levels of seawater, serving as an important buffer against ocean acidification.McCurry continues.**

Read Seth McCurry’s blog ‘An unlikely ocean hero becomes MSC certified. Why ocean cleaning Sea Cucumber is worth protecting’ to find out more.

* Jaquemet, S. and Conand, C. (1999) The Beche-‐de-Mer Trade in 1995‐96 and an Assessment of Exchanges Between the Main World Markets, SPC Beche-de‐Mer Information Bulletin, 12: 11–14.

** Purcell et al. (2016) Ecological Roles of Exploited Sea Cucumbers. Oceanography and marine biology 54:367-386