West Australia sea cucumber fishery becomes first of its kind to get MSC nod
The Western Australia sea cucumber fishery has become the first sea cucumber fishery in the world to gain Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) certification.
The fishery, located off the Western Australia coastline, catches two species of sea cucumber: deep-water redfish (Actinopyga echinites) and sand fish (Holothuria scabra). The certification was granted after an independent assessment by Lloyd’s Register, which determined that the fishery met the standards for MSC certification.
“Congratulations to the Western Australia Sea Cucumber fishery for leading the way with this world-first certification,” MSC Asia Pacific Director Patrick Caleo said in a release announcing the 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.”
Sea cucumbers are eaten in Asian markets, primarily China, where the bottom-dwelling creature represents a multi-billion dollar industry. Over 1,400 species of sea cucumber are said to exist, according to the MSC, and at least 70 of those species are harvested.
High demand for the species has led to high prices – up to USD 3,000 (EUR 2,700) per kilogram – which in turn has led to increased levels of illegal fishing, according to the MSC. That, coupled with the rising population of China’s middle class, has led to fears poaching of the animals could increase.
“The upward financial mobility of China’s growing middle class will likely result in increasing demand for high-end delicacies like sea cucumber,” Seth McCurry, a sea cucumber expert and MSC’s commercial outreach manager for the U.K. and Ireland, said. “Sustainable management of wild sea cucumber fisheries, such as that demonstrated by the Western Australian sea cucumber fishery, are critical to meet this demand.”
Increased demand has been caused by other factors as well. In 2018, a massive die-off of farmed sea cucumbers caused by a heat wave – likely linked to climate change – resulted in billions of dollars in losses. Hotter weather continued in 2019, pushing prices higher and encouraging smuggling.
Climate factors have led some companies to pursue indoor farms in order to avoid the issues caused by climate change.
The growing demand and concerns about illegal harvesting are key factors in why the fishery sought out the certification, according to Tasmanian Seafoods CEO Mark Webster. Tasmanian Seafoods was the supplier pursuing the certification.
“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,” Webster said.
The fishery, according to the MSC assessment, is well-managed and at low-risk of overexploitation. Webster added that the harvest methods of the fishery are particularly low-impact.
“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,” Webster said in a release. “Due to hand harvesting, the fishery has no incidental bycatch. We believe these conditions lead to a world-leading quality product.”
Sea cucumbers are particularly important to the health of the oceans, according to McCurry. He wrote a blog post about the small, limbless creatures detailing the many ways the species benefits the wider ecosystem.
“Sea cucumbers have ‘ocean cleaning’ properties which make protecting it vital for maintaining good ocean health,” the post states. Sea cucumbers redistribute sediment and feed on detritus, excreting nitrogen and phosphorus. “This nutrient recycling and sediment redistribution is critical to maintaining productive and biodiverse ecosystems, such as coral reefs. It can also affect alkalinity levels of seawater, serving as an important buffer against ocean acidification.”
Webster said that Tasmanian Seafoods plans to continue working to achieve certification for more of the fisheries in Australia.
“We plan to work with stakeholders to achieve MSC certification for all of Australia’s sea cucumber fisheries,” he said. “Once achieved, all Australian sea cucumber can be sold with the MSC blue fish tick label.”
Photo courtesy of the Marine Stewardship Council