Chinese demand for Japanese sea cucumber heats up

Published on
August 31, 2018

Japan may be the big winner in a sea cucumber market that has literally gotten too hot.

A heat wave from late July to early August in China’s Liaoning Province killed most of the sea cucumbers being raised in shallow ponds there. Liaoning is the main production area in China for farmed sea cucumber, and as a result of the die-off, China may have to make up the deficit with increased imports. 

Japan is the most likely beneficiary of this demand, as it produces Apostichopus japonicus, the species most favored in China. The main production areas are Hokkaido and Aomori. Sea cucmber take about four years to mature in the cold water off Hokkaido, but about two off Aomori. For that reason, most sea cucumber aquaculture is carried out in Aomori, with Mutsu Bay – also a productive scallop farming area – the most important grow-out area.

Wataru Yoshida, a professor on the faculty of agriculture and life science at Hirosaki University in Aomori, Japan, studies both the biology and the global market for sea cucumbers. He said Japan’s sea cucumbers get a premium as an export product.

“Japanese sea cucumber is very expensive in the world,” Yoshida said. “In Japan, the big sea cucumbers (adults) are almost all harvested from the wild for raw eating and processing (dried sea cucumber). But small sea cucumbers (juveniles) are cultured in the land installations.”

Sea cucumbers are eaten pickled in Japan, often as an appetizer, but are usually dried for export. Jiji Press reported average export prices for dried Japanese sea cucumber in June this year at JPY 28,000 (USD 253.42, EUR 221.49) per kilogram. On Alibaba, giant sea cucumber is listed at just 30 to 40 USD (EUR 26.20 to 34.93) per kilogram in bulk, while small Japanese sea cucumber (four to five centimeters in length) was USD 990 (EUR 864.57) per kilogram, highlighting the premium for the Japanese species.

And while the heat wave that killed off much of the Chinese crop this summer has created a soaring demand for Japanese sea cucumber, Japan has actually experienced a long-running boom market for the species since 2000, according to Yoshida, with its growth reaching a peak from 2011 to 2014.

In a co-authored report, “Characteristics of recent Chinese and Japanese sea cucumber consumption,” Yoshida and fellow researcher Shousuke Shibuya noted that online sales are driving an expansion of sea cucumber consumption into areas of China away from the coast where they were not a traditional part of the regional cuisine. They have also become a high-status gift item. In addition, while they were previously consumed at hotels and high-end restaurants, they are now often eaten at home, and the age of the purchasers is also becoming younger. 

High prices and strong demand have broadened the wild-capture sea cucumber industry to remote regions of Southeast Alaska, and even to the Gulf of Mexico. The boom has also brought a more unsavory aspect to the global fishery: in Spain and Australia, there have been reports of poachers risking fines to catch it. 

Japan isn’t immune from poaching and black market dealing in sea cucumber. Three years ago, authorities uncovered an illegal sea cucumber racket in Aomori Prefecture, valued at an estimated JPY 190 million (USD 1.7 million, EUR 1.5 million), and last year, the boss of Yamaguchi-gumi, Japan’s largest yakuza organization, was fined  JPY 100 million (USD 900,000, EUR 800,000) for illegal possession of 60 metric tons of sea cucumbers.

“We don’t know the amount of sea cucumber that is poached by yakuza,” Yoshida said. “But if a large amount is caught, the resources of sea cucumber will recede in the wild.”

In most areas of the world, there is no regulation of sea cucumber harvesting at all, as it has never been considered as economically important. But its newfound value has the potential to deplete stocks around the world, according to author Mitsutaku Makino. 

Makino is upbeat about Japan’s handling of its sea cucumber aquaculture operations. In his book, “Fisheries Management in Japan: Its institutional features and case studies,” Makino claims that sea cucumbers in Mutsu Bay are well-managed by an fisheries management organization organized within the local Fisheries Cooperative Association.

“It autonomously adopts various resource conservation measures such as minimum and maximum size limits, no-take zones, and annual allowable catches bases on resource assessments conducted by the fishers themselves. They have also worked with fisheries researchers to build artificial reefs made of scallop shells to restore cucumber habitat.” Makino wrote. “This FMO also directed a lot of effort toward perfecting dry processing techniques and marketing the sea cucumber for export to Hong Kong. Their dried sea cucumber is now one of the most recognized seafood commodity brands in the Hong Kong markets.”

Japan’s sea cucumber fishery still faces competition and the challenge of dealing with the stigma of concerns about fallout from the Fukushima nuclear disaster. India is improving its commercial farming techniques for a distinct species of sea cucumber, Holothuria scabra, and aquaculturists in other countries have been successful with a few other species as well. 

And Yoshida said ongoing concerns from consumers abroad have created a need for a certification to identify marine products as safe from radiation concerns.

“If there is a request from the client (mainly Chinese), the products are exported with a radiation check sheet. The problem is cost and time [for] the radiation check,” he said. “Fortunately, Fukushima is not famous for fishing of sea cucumber.” 

Contributing Editor reporting from Osaka, Japan

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