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Current status of the sea cucumber fishery in the south eastern region of Cuba

Irma Alfonso, M.P. Frías, L. Aleaga and C.R.Alonso

Fishery Research Center, Havana, Cuba

Abstract

The analysis of the sea cucumber (Isostichopus badionotus) fishery from August 1999 to June 2003 in the south eastern region of Cuba is summarized. During the first two years of the fishery (1999-2000) more than three million individuals were collected. During this period all the fishing effort was conducted by one fishing enterprise employing 12 boats. In 2001, the former enterprise was split into 3 fishing units, with 3 boats authorized for each unit. During the first two years the catch per unit effort (CPUE) was around 1 153 sea cucumber/boat/day. In subsequent years, production and the CPUE decreased to <500 000 individuals/fishing season and 350 sea cucumber/boat/day, respectively.

At presently, the CPUE is in the order of 1 200 sea cucumber/boat/day. The declining CPUE is not an index of a biomass decrease, as it fluctuates between 4 500 to 7 610 individuals/hectare. The low CPUE for the 2001-2002 fishing season was due to the inadequate logistical inputs into the activity (mainly availability of fuel for the boats). Efforts are being made to re-establish the normal fishery conditions. A total of 1 438 tonnes wet weight have been extracted in the south eastern region, with 920 tonnes extracted in the two first years of the fishery. A capture of 200 tonnes wet weight for this region was planned during 2003. The CPUE has been recommended for each fishery season and locality, with a maximum of 1 200 to 1 500 sea cucumber/boat/day, depending on the abundance in each fishing area. So far approximately 69 tonnes of dried sea cucumbers have been processed and sold. Prices have steadily increased during this period from US$ 13.5/kg dry product in 1999-2001, to US$ 18.0 in 2001-2002, and US$ 22.0/kg in 2003 as a result of improved product class and quality.

Keywords: sea cucumber fishery, Isostichopus badionotus, capture quota, CPUE, Cuba

Introduction

More than a dozen holothurian species have been indiscriminately exploited as well as being subjected to local fishing restrictions in different parts of the world. The unique culinary characteristics of sea cucumber, much appreciated in Asia, and the inadequate and/or the lack of management measures have been responsible for the overfishing of these benthic organisms (Richmond et al., 1996; Conand, 1997; Ferdouse, 1999; Henkins and Mulliken, 1999; Morgan, 2000; Conand, 2001). Measures taken to protect these resources have been generally limited (Amesbury, 1996). The potential for a sea cucumber fishery in Cuba was recognised in 1997 after an investigation carried out by the Fishery Research Center in the shallow waters around the country. Following this, a southern Korean company negotiated a fishing agreement with the authorities for the extraction of commercially important species. Preliminary investigations estimated an annual harvest potential of 320 tonnes (dry weight) of the commercial species, Isostichopus badionotus (Alfonso et al., 1998).

Aresearch project was initiated alongside the start of the fishery in August 1999 allowing the first set of catch statistics on Isostichopus badionotus (Figure 1) to be collected. Furthermore, the project also carried out a preliminary stock abundance evaluation as well as estimated the production potential of the fishery. Studies on the species biology were also conducted. Considerations on the possible impact of the fishery to the sea cucumber population led to the formulation of a number of fishing regulations by mid 2000 (Alfonso et al., 2000). These regulations set the catch quota for the various fishing areas, set a minimal legal size of 22 mm, and imposed a close fishing season during the reproductive months (February-April). In addition, the regulations also restricted a minimum catch of 60 sea cucumber specimens per standard collection bag and the maintenance of covered "onboard tanks" to protect the sea cucumbers from the sun and heat.

The speedboats used (Figure 2) are equipped with compressed air diving tanks and four onboard holding tanks fitted with a flow-through water system to hold the sea cucumbers. The fishery is carried out at depths of between 3-15 m and no fishing accidents have been reported.

The fishing trips commonly last around 20 days, followed by a 10-day layoff period. Evisceration of the sea cucumbers is done on board and sea cucumbers are then transported to the nearest quay for boiling and salting. Further processing and packaging is then carried out in proper processing plants.

A Technical Operational Procedure (TOP) manual (Figure 3), (Frías et al., Figure 1. Live specimens of sea cucumber (I. badionotus) in holding tanks. 2002), a manual of species identification (Alfonso and Frías, 2001) and catch quota documentation were developed during the initial stages of this newly establish fishery. The TOP manual comprises measures for accident prevention, decompression tables, and allowable catch number of sea cucumber/bag along with other technical information (e.g. size of the collecting bags).

Figure 1. Live specimens of sea cucumber (I. badionotus) in holding tanks.

Another TOP manual was developed to guarantee better yields and quality of the final product (Castelo et al., 2002). The quality of the processed products has considerably improved over the years and the current yield is around 20 % of the wet weight, similar to sea cucumber fisheries in other parts of the world.

Figure 2. Speedboats used in the sea cucumber fishery.

Figure 3. Counting and measuring a sea cucumber catch based on the procedures detailed in the Technical Operational Procedure (TOP) manual.

The principal objective of this paper is to provide information about the current status of the sea cucumber (I. badionotus) fishery in Cuba's south eastern region.

Materials and methods

During the first two years, fishing efforts were centred off the town of Granma. From February 2001, it expanded to coastal areas further east to include the towns of Júcaro and Santa Cruz del Sur (Figure 4).

The catch quotas were set following an estimation of the sea cucumber biomass (Amesbury and Kerr, 1996; FAO, 1990). Catch data and CPUE (sea cucumber/boat/day) were recorded in all field monitoring trips. The monthly data collected in each fishing area were compared with the daily catch data reported by the Operations Fishery Office of the Ministry of the Fishing and Industry. Fifteen monitoring trips were organized to the fishing areas to verify the actual CPUE values, the sea cucumber abundance and other biological data (length measurements, total and tegument weights). Furthermore, the gonads were used to identify the sex and the maturation stage of each individual. Starting in 2002, the reproductive cycle of this species has been under investigation (Aleaga et al., unpublished).

Results and discussion

Brief fishery analysis

The highest production volumes occurred during the first two fishing seasons (1999-2000) when over three million individuals were landed (Figure 5).

During this period the sea cucumber fishery was managed by one fishing enterprise located in Granma which operated 12 boats in the south eastern region of Cuba. In mid 2001 this enterprise was split into 3 fishing units with 3 boats each; however the production remained rather low due to a series of technical and management complications. By 2003, the sea cucumber fleet consisted only of one boat in Júcaro, two in Santa Cruz del Sur and two in Granma.

Figure 5 shows a decrease in the production (catch), CPUE and the number of fishing days from 2000 to 2001. Around three million sea cucumbers were harvested in the first two years, but currently less than 500 000 are caught annually. A total of 1 438 tonnes (wet weight) have been so far extracted in the south eastern region from the start of the fishery, i.e. 920 tonnes from May 1999 to the end of 2000, 253 tonnes in 2001, 133 tonnes in 2002 and 127 tonnes in the first 6 months of 2003. To date, almost 69 tonnes (dry weight) have been processed and sold to a trading company (NENEKA CA) (41.6 tonnes up to the end of 2000, 13.5 tonnes in 2001, 7.3 tonnes in 2002 and 6.4 tonnes at the end of the first half of 2003).

Figure 4. Map of the south eastern region of Cuba showing the sea cucumber fishing protected areas and location of the fishing enterprises.

Despite a new system of payment being in place for the fishermen since 2002, some logistical support failures, for instance fuel, have created difficulties for the sea cucumber fleet. Thus, higher catches have not been possible. At present, efforts are being undertaken to re-establish normal fishery conditions and the trading company involved in the sector (NENEKA CA) is supporting the financing of boat motors and spare parts. The size of the fishery is not of great importance for the Cuban authorities at this stage even though the sea cucumber fishery provides an income to the enterprises involved and generates some employment.

According to the data collected by the authorities, the sea cucumber population has not been seriously affected by the fishery, particularly as the juvenile density remains at an acceptable level. Furthermore, the declining CPUE is not an indication of biomass decrease, as the values have fluctuated between 4 500 to 7 610 ind./ha possibly indicating the aggregationbehaviour noted by Sloan and Bodungen (1980) and Boada and Buitrago (1996) in the waters off Bermuda and Venezuela, respectively.

Preliminary field observations show that the sea cucumbers have fully matured gonads during February-April. This information was used by the researchers to initially recommend a close fishing season during this period. However, further research showed that a large number of sea cucumbers juveniles (22 cm in length - minimal legal size) appeared in the fishing grounds from July to September while the adult population remained scarce. For this reason the initial closed fishing season (February-April) was moved to July-September.

Figure 5. Sea cucumber production, CPUE and fishing days in Cuba's south eastern region from late 1999 to June 2003.

Tables 1 and 2 show the production of sea cucumber against the fishing efforts during the first 6 months of 2003. Only a total of 361 598 sea cucumber specimens and approximately 127 tonnes (wet weight) were produced resulting in a CPUE value of around 1 270 sea cucumber/boat/day and 225 sea cucumbers/diver/day.

New sea cucumber fishing areas were also searched. A survey carried out in the south western region of Cuba in April 2002 indicated a potential fishery of an additional 231 tonnes (wet weight). However, the infrastructure in this region still remains inadequate for establishing a fishing operation.

Table 1. Effort and catch values of the sea cucumber fishery from January to June 2003 in the south eastern region of Cuba.

Harvest Seasons 2003

Effort

Catch

Fishing Days / fishing season

Fishing boats / harvest season

Number sea cucumber

Wet weight kilograms

January

45

3

69 697

21 740

February

47

3

76 353

21 141

March

56

4

88 071

32 765

April

31

5

28 137

18 850

May

21

3

31 549

11 800

June

57

5

67 791

21 500


257*

4**

361 598*

127 796*

*Total sum.

** Mean value.

Table 2. Catch per unit effort values of the sea cucumber fishery from January to June 2003 in the south eastern region of Cuba.

Catch Per Unit Effort

No. sea cucumber/boat/day

Wet weight Kg/boat/day

No. sea cucumber/diver/day

Wet weight kg/diver/day

1 549

483

258

81

1 624

449

270

75

1 573

585

262

98

907

608

151

101

1 502

561

250

94

1 189

377

188

63

1 270*

504*

225*

83*

* Mean values.

Processing

Sea cucumbers are initially sorted by size onboard the vessels (Figure 3). Upon arrival at the landing site a small cut is made beneath the oral opening of the sea cucumber to allow complete evisceration. After boiling for 30-45 minutes (depending on the size of the specimens), the sea cucumbers are drained, chilled and salted for 24 hours. Sun drying for several days follows and is done by evenly distributing the sea cucumbers over suspended mesh trays (Figure 6).

The final step in the processing involves drying the sea cucumber in an oven at 60 °C for 3-4 days depending on the initial moisture content of the specimens introduced (Figure 7). Once the desired level of desiccation is achieved, the sea cucumbers are packed in 20 kg capacity paper and nylon bags. Each bag contains around 1 075 to 1 200 pieces.

The dried sea cucumbers are separated, classified and packed in two classes. Class A currently commands a price of US$ 22/kg while Class B a price of US$ 8/kg. In 2003 approximately 87 % of the sea cucumber produced were Class A.

Figure 6. Sun drying and preliminary size grouping of sea cucumbers.

Biological characteristics of the Cuban sea cucumber

The tegument wet weight and size of

the Cuban sea cucumber, I. badionotus, varies seasonally and reaches the optimal value from February to May coinciding with the peak maturation of the gonad. The maximum mean weight value recorded in Cuban waters was 612.4 ± 155.8 g.

With regards to the recruit of sea cucumber juveniles around the small islands off Santa Cruz del Sur it should be noted that the marine current in the study area flows from east to west. This current may be responsible for the transportation of the developing larvae probably from the Buena Esperanza Bank located off the town of Granma.

Large mature sea cucumbers have been found in this latter area which has, therefore, been declared a protected area (Figure 4).

The sustainable extraction of the few commercial species of sea cucumber in Cuba may have no or little effect on the environment as the ecological function carried out by these species may be sufficiently covered by other holothurians of no commercial value, such as H. mexicana (up to 17 000/ha), A. multifidus (up to 6 300/ha), A. agassizii (up to 1 800/ha), H. floridana (up to 2 800/ha) as well as other less abundant species.

Figure 7. Oven used for the final drying of sea cucumbers.

Use of sea cucumber by-products

The use of sea cucumber by-products, such as gonads and the boiled freshwater used in processing, are currently being investigated. Aj oint proj ect with the national Centre on Studies of Natural Products (CEPN) of the Faculty of Biology at the University of Havana is being considered in order to research and extract bioactive compounds from sea cucumbers for medicinal purposes and other uses. A separate project with techniques for breeding, farming and harvesting the I. badionotus species for other possible utilization will also be necessary.

Figure 8. Live sea cucumber specimens of A. agassizii (1), H. floridana (2 and 4) and H. grisea (3).

Conclusions

The sea cucumber resources in Cuba, and in particular I. badionotus, are being exploited following aprecautionary approach. A number of management measures have been established in order to ensure a profitable utilization of the natural marine resource. The overall volume of the fishery is not considered an important factor in Cuba, however the fishery does provide an alternative economic activity and employment opportunities to the local fishing enterprises engaged in the sector.

Further biological studies on I. badionotus are required in order to ensure the sustainability of the fishery.

Research needs

The following studies are recommended:

- Thorough investigation on the reproductive cycle of the commercial sea cucumber species.

- Investigation on the natural growth and mortality cycle of the commercial sea cucumber species.

- Identify the possible relationships between bottom particle composition and sea cucumber growth.

- Research on population movements of the major commercial sea cucumber species.

- Research on the extraction of bioactive compounds from sea cucumber and their by-products.

- Promote international collaboration on sea cucumber fisheries, aquaculture and trade.

Acknowledgements

Thanks to Dr Chantal Conand for her exhaustive revision, comments and advice on the preparation of this paper. Our gratitude goes also to Mr Alessandro Lovatelli for inviting us to attend the ASCAM workshop in China and for the opportunity to establish valuable international contacts. To NENEKA CA for the logistical support provided during the field work. We wish to thank FAO for financially supporting the participation of Cuba at the ASCAM workshop. Many thanks to our colleague, Enrique Valdés, for his advice and comments on the present work. We also wish to acknowledge the collaboration offered by the fishery enterprises in Cuba.

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