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The status of sea cucumber fishery and mariculture in the Philippines

Ruth Gamboa[10], Aurelia Luzviminda Gomez[11] and Marie Frances Nievales[12]


There are about a hundred known species of sea cucumbers in the Philippines, 25 of which are harvested commercially. Although, the traditional trade of these resources, which is export, has existed for centuries, statistical monitoring started only in the 1970s. Over the last two decades, export levels have been maintained at 1 000 tonnes annually with the decline in the volume of high value species compensated by the low value species. Hong Kong SAR (China), as the major export partner, likely serves as a transit point for other countries. Treated primarily as an export commodity, government statistics on domestic trade and consumption are not available. However, processed products can be found in supermarkets in big cities and beche-de-mer as an ingredient in Chinese dishes is common, but largely unknown to local clientele. Between the fishers and the export market are a series of middlemen who have complete control over domestic prices, which in turn are largely influenced by the Chinese market. The fisher or middleman who does the primary processing of drying/chilling the product would first hoard a certain volume before selling to the next middleman in the city. Such a practice allows a return of investment period of one week to several months.

Available scientific reports focus mainly on taxonomy and distribution; data on the rate of extraction have been limited to stories of localized depletion as narrated by the fishers during interviews. All those interviewed agree that their catch per unit effort has been declining significantly through the years - that is, for two or three pieces of >500 g individuals, the fishers have to go to deeper waters for a longer time. Research and development (R&D) on the mariculture of the high value Holothuria scabra were initiated in 2000 with a long term objective of producing seeds for the enhancement of the wild populations. Studies at experimental scale were conducted to improve the survival rate of fertilized eggs to juveniles. Likewise, initial investigations on the growth of juveniles in cages in the field have been initiated. At full scale, the reseeding activity is envisioned to be a partnership between academia and the stakeholders, with the latter taking full charge of the management component. Recently, these R&D efforts suffered a major set back when financial support from the Government was suspended.

Keywords: Sea cucumbers, trade, depletion, H. scabra, reseeding, Philippines


The Philippines, as an archipelago, is naturally blessed with a high diversity of sea cucumber species that inhabit its wide seagrass beds, soft bottom areas, and reefs. Sea cucumber ranks 8th among the major fishery exports of the country. About 100 known species, distributed throughout the country, have been recorded (Schoppe, 2000; Domantay, 1934) and trade currently exists from the north to the south (Formacion, 1979; Trinidad-Roa, 1987). The country has been a major exporter of the processed trepang or beche-de-mer for the last several centuries (Akamine, 2002) and the trade has been responsible for the prosperity of the Sulu Sultanate in southern Philippines during the 18th and 19th centuries (Akamine, 1998). Based on recent records, export production reached a peak of 3 499 tonnes, worth about US$ 3 million, in 1985 and was followed by a drastic drop to almost half of the said volume in the succeeding year. Since then, trepang export has been maintained at ^1 000 tonnes, perhaps second only to Indonesia (FAO, 2000; Akamine, 2002).

A review of the fishery at the national scale was first published in 1987 (Trinidad-Roa, 1987). The issues raised then were as follows:

1. Localized depletion;

2. Lack of baseline surveys to ascertain extent of depletion; absence of inventory and monitoring of existing stocks in both unexplored and exploited areas;

3. Uncontrolled, non-selective harvesting;

4. Export demand has led fishers to search farther and deeper;

5. Despite the increased catch effort, the catch volume has been decreasing;

6. Absence of guidelines for regulating collection;

7. Absence of management plans about the fishery;

8. Absence of hatchery efforts.

Eighteen years after that review and at the start of the 21st century, has the fishery fared any better? For this updated report, both primary and secondary data were used. Primary data were gathered mainly through interviews (conducted in 2002 as well as accumulated through the last five years) with fishers, traders and consumers (restaurant owners, exporters or food processors). The places where interviews and/or visits were conducted are, namely:

A. Luzon - Batangas, Ilocos, Metro Manila, Pangasinan.

B. Visayas - Bohol, Cebu, Iloilo, Negros Occidental and Oriental, Palawan.

C. Mindanao - Davao del Norte, del Sur and Oriental, Surigao del Norte, Tawi-tawi.

D. Zamboanga.

Secondary data were taken from available related literature as well as from the main offices of the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR), Department of Trade and Industry (DTI), the Bureau of Agricultural Statistics (BAS) and the Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources (BFAR). Our assessment shows that the issues in 1987 are exactly the same issues, becoming more pronounced, that have yet to be addressed today. While a pilot scale hatchery production was started in 2000, the project suffered a set back when government suspended the funding this year until further notice. In what follows, we will try to echo the same issues by looking at several dynamics of the fishery.

Species composition and abundance

The BFAR considers sea cucumber as a heavily exploited resource and acknowledges that localized depletion exists in many fishing grounds. But the bureau possesses no quantitative census to support this claim. Nevertheless, fishers and middlemen interviewed for this particular report were in agreement to concerns like:

1. Lessened frequency in fishing and reduced catch volume as compared to the boom years - In Samal Island, for example, from a year round activity to an average of three to five months per year; from several kilograms to a few individuals;

2. Longer time to accumulate a certain volume - In Bolinao, a middleman of dried products who used to leave for Manila every month now goes once every three months; another middleman of chilled products leaves once or twice a month with lesser volume but compensated by higher prices;

3. Resorting to low value species - A trader in Manila does not discriminate species in order to meet demand.

Available references on species composition and abundance are limited to local descriptions which vary in space and time (Acosta, 1969 as cited by Tan Tui, 1981; Alcala and Alcazar, 1984; Domantay, 1933, 1934, 1953, 1968; Domantay and Conlu, 1968; Leonardo and Cowan 1984; Metillo et al., in press; Tan Tiu, 1981), thus, could not be compared directly. In 1987, only 15 species were exploited (Trinidad-Roa, 1987). By 2000, the number had grown to 25 (Schoppe, 2000). This is, perhaps, one of the most diverse among the beche-de-mer exporting countries. The Solomon Islands listed 22 species in 1993 (as cited by BAS, 2001, Philippines), while Madagascar has 27 species (Conand, 2001).

During the surveys, difficulty in ranking the exploited species and comparing them with those of Akamine (2002) or Schoppe (2000) were attributed to the following: (a) the use of different local names from place to place; (b) unavailability of fresh species at the time of the survey; and (c) varying prices as quoted by the different fishers and middlemen.

Another concern is the seeming lack of effort, on the side of the Government, in obtaining regional demographic or ecological information on holothurians in the country. Where such information exists, they are incomplete and fragmented and hardly helpful to local beneficiaries, e.g. local government units, who may need the information for planning and management purposes. Several regional BFAR offices were randomly checked for local data on standing crop and production. None was collected, as most often sea cucumbers are lumped together under marine products. Thus, this lack of demographic/ecological information is a big knowledge gap hindering the formulation of a management plan for the sustainability of the fishery.

Collection and management

Harvesting methods for sea cucumbers are of two types. One group of fishers targets and gathers sea cucumbers exclusively for direct sale to a local middleman; the other, more common, group collects individuals as by-catch. The first group can be further classified according to the volume of their catch. The more organized, as exemplified by those in Mangsee Palawan (Akamine, 1998), go out to deeper reefs for as long as forty days. The other group, as exemplified by those in Batangas, may consist of individuals who wade on seagrass beds during low tide and dig for or hand pick sea cucumbers. While it is the men who are primarily involved in both types, women and even school children are engaged in the latter type of harvesting, specifically on weekends.

Sea cucumbers as bycatch are gathered by 2-3 people on a boat that do traditional fishing by skin diving or diving with the use of an air compressor. The catch is sold to the nearest middleman who sometimes waits right at the landing site. The cash is equally divided between the fishers. In north western Iligan Bay (Metillo et al, in press) and in Samal Island in Davao Gulf, a boat with 1-3 persons may be launched to collect sea cucumbers which are sold either directly to a middleman or sliced into bite sizes and sold fresh at the nearest wet market. This type of group sets out only when the all the conditions are ideal, namely: low tide, fair weather and new moon.

In all these types of gathering processes, no regulation or monitoring exists at the local level. There is no official size or volume restriction, no closed season, not even tax collection on the landings. The only fee the fishers pay is for the licence to operate a motorized boat. Under the Local Government Code, coastal municipalities are empowered to develop their own coastal development plan, which should include the sustainable use of marine resources. These plans, however, face a tough challenge during the implementation. Among the obstacles are a lack of political will especially in prosecuting the big-time illegal fish operators, a conflict of interests among the implementers, a lack of support from the community and a shortage of funds.

For marginal fishers who have to go farther and deeper, an air compressor is a basic tool. These divers, though fully aware of the danger and local ban on the use of air compressors, insist that it is cheaper and more practical than SCUBA. They would argue further that they are left with little alternative and taking risks (e.g. getting paralysed or imprisoned) is part of their hand-to-mouth existence. This attitude of fatalism ("what will be, will be") is common even among urban dwellers. While policing the use of banned gears such as air compressors and trawls is encouraged at the local government level, success stories are few and hardly sustained as the sea police operate on a volunteer basis and their trips depend on the availability of a boat with fuel. Moreover, the violators they apprehend are turned over to the local authorities where prosecution is another complicated, often politician-intervened process.

Traders sometimes complain of the indiscriminate practice of harvesting small individuals by some fishers. One trader said that once he tried imposing a minimum dried length of 7.5 cm and did not buy anything smaller. However, the fishers that he turned away would proceed to the next trader who willingly bought the rejected goods. The other trader would claim that there is market even for small ones. Another trader justified his purchase of all sizes from the fishers by saying it was out of pity. Whether for sustainability or out of pity, it is the traders and not the fishers who live comfortably, judging from the house amenities observed during interviews.

From the point of view of fishers, what is more important is the additional income they derive from catching sea cucumbers. They argue that the small ones they leave behind will be collected by the other fishers so why be selective. Thus, there is a problem of sea cucumbers being overexploited like all other open access fisheries in the country.

Utilization and product flow

Holothurian resources in the Philippines are utilized almost exclusively as an export commodity based on the availability of national data on exports, but an absence of the same for local production and consumption. Locally consumed beche-de-mer is usually an ingredient in preparing mixed seafood and "ho-to-tay" dishes popular in regular Chinese restaurants. Unfortunately, the ingredient is unknown to many. At more expensive dining places, beche-de-mer from the better species are sautéed in a marinade of special sauce and condiments. An appetizer among Boholano divers is fermented entrails (PCAMRD, Philippine Council for Aquatic and Marine Research and Development, 1991). Traditional knowledge on sea cucumber as a medicine also exists, such as the Cuverian tubules as crude plaster for minor wounds and the extracts from the body musculature for tumours, fungal infection, high blood pressure, arthritis and muscular disorders (Trinidad-Roa, 1987). There is a growing volume of literature on the pharmaceutical importance of sea cucumber in international journals. Sadly, very little R&D effort is invested in this area by the Philippine Government.

Figure 1 shows the flow of sea cucumber from the sea to the plate. The fishers could use their harvest for: (a) immediate domestic consumption, (b) selling either directly to a middleman or in wet form at the local market; or (c) post-harvest processing. The third option involves boiling, after which the product is either chilled or smoke-dried. According to traders, the bulk of the processed items go to foreign markets and Manila restaurants. The processed product is allowed to accumulate for a time before the stock is taken to the nearest middleman. The process of storage, either for larger volumes or higher prices, is repeated depending on the distance of the middlemen and traders to Manila where the major exporters are based. How much volume flows through each step is difficult to quantify and would depend on the type of fishers and the storage time.

Figure 1. The flow of Philippine sea cucumbers from fishers to consumers.

According to Akamine (1998, 2001), there are exporters in Manila who provide capital for some local traders in key cities such as Zamboanga and Puerto Princesa. These locals are forced to sell to their financiers at prices lower than those offered by other traders. Nonetheless, such an arrangement ensures a market for their stock. The Manila traders would come once a month and the local traders would hardly have an idea on where the products will eventually be sold and at what prices.

What volume is retained for restaurants in Manila as well as supermarkets in big cities is unknown. The product on the shelf comes in the form of chilled, ready-to-cook slices in styropacks. Depending on the species and the supply, prices can range from P 200-500 per kg (US$ 1 = P 54). Two supermarkets in Davao City say they get their supply from Manila as local processors provide inferior quality product. In such a case, the flow can be from Mindanao to Manila then back to Mindanao. The processing technology in Mindanao is to be developed to improve local prices.

The product flow further shows the absence of a market support system by which the fishers can derive maximum returns for their catch. The fishers do not have any say at all on the prices for their goods. While a majority of them are contented to receive some cash in exchange, if given the chance, they too would like to have some leverage on price setting. Local traders, on the other hand, point to the Manila exporters as the ones who really control the prices. For their part, the Manila exporters cite the Chinese market as the real price setter. According to Akamine (1998), there are only four of these exporters, all of Chinese descent. No government interventions exist for the control and regulation of exported trepang. Generally, the government's emphasis on export as a dollar earner for the country encourages exploitation and unsustainable use of domestic resources.

Trade and foreign markets

Sea cucumbers are sources of income for marginal fishers in impoverished coastal villages in the country. In some islands like Panay, certain species like H. scabra can be the top export earner (del Norte-Campos et al, in press). However, the actual contribution to the gross income per family is difficult to determine due to different fishing practices and frequency. Even the middlemen or local traders, who are materially better off than the fishers, are hesitant to give information on their real profit.

Citing Akamine (2002) as the source of the latest available statistics, the five highly priced species and the corresponding prices of large-sized individuals are as follows:


US$/kg (as of 2001)

Holothuria fuscogilva


Holothuria scabra


Actinopyga lecanora


Stichopus hermanni


Holothuria nobilis


In Bolinao, where an almost mono-specific fishery of H. scabra exists, field collectors are paid by local buyers P 5 (or US$ 0.10/piece) of 250-300 g (unpublished data). Assuming there is 90 % reduction in weight after processing, there should be 33-40 dried pieces to make up a kilogram. The total investment of the direct buyer in this case would be roughly US$ 4/kg while the export price could fetch about US$ 19-33/kg based on the above quoted prices. This is a clear picture of the traders taking the bulk of the profit and the fishers being given a token. It is not surprising, therefore, to see tremendous interest in trepang, especially among the traders.

One factor affecting price at the fisher's level is insufficient drying. Most of the traders would not buy insufficiently dried sea cucumber and would return them to the fishers. Although the rejected goods would eventually end up on the domestic table, still they represent lost cash for the fishers. Teaching the fishers improved ways of processing can be one way to avoid such loss. Among the traders, it is not unusual for them to do further drying themselves. This improves the quality of the products, thus, increasing their profit.

The sources of the authors' export market data (BAS and BFAR) are the same as that of Akamine's (1998) with the addition of years from 1997 to 2001. The total volume and value of trepang export for the last 22 years are presented in Figure 2. The significant volume peak of 3 500 tonnes in 1985 was not matched in value that year and was followed by a significant drop the next year. The drop in both volume and value in 1986 could have been due to excess supply from the previous year or to the rapid devaluation of the national currency (peso) before the downfall of the Marcos dictatorship in the third quarter. The peak has not been repeated since and volume in the years that followed averaged 1 500 tonnes. The last decade saw a surge in the value of trepang despite the continued devaluation of the peso. The sharp drop in value in 1998 could be partly attributed to the Asian crisis during the same period. While the volume may vary, the last two decades generally have been "boom years" for Philippine trepang. In fact, the last decade shows relatively better prices. This persistent export market and better prices exert sustained pressure on the fishery.

Figure 2. Total volume(MT) and value (FOB US$) of Philippine trepang export from 1980-2001. (Sources: BAS and BFAR, Philippines).

The foreign market destinations for Philippine sea cucumbers since the 1980s number around 16, which include Australia, the United States of America, Europe, the Middle East and even Africa. Of these, in chronological order, Hong Kong SAR (China), Singapore, Korea Rep., Taiwan (Province of China) and Japan started as the top five importers, although, Japan intermittently had years with no import. No reason can be given at this point. Figure 3 shows the total volume and value of Philippine sea cucumber exported to the top three foreign markets during the period 1990-2001. Hong Kong SAR (China) has maintained its top position since then absorbing 80 % of the total export. In the last decade, Singapore and Korea Rep. have switched places. The average price paid per kilogram by the three markets is shown in Figure 4. Korea Rep. paid the highest price while Hong Kong SAR (China), the top importer, paid the cheapest. According to Akamine (1998), this discrepancy means that Hong Kong SAR (China) was buying the low-value trepang while Korea Rep. and Singapore prefer the more expensive varieties. It is unlikely for Hong Kong SAR (China), being a small territory, to consume all the sea cucumbers it is importing from the Philippines. Most likely it serves as a transit point for shipping sea cucumbers to other destinations, perhaps, after further processing. While there is no available information to substantiate this claim, a seafood exporter in Davao (Philippines) considers Hong Kong SAR (China) a "middleman" of many export products.

Figure 3. Total volume (z) in kg and value (-) in FOB US$ of Philippine trepang exported to the top three markets, namely: Hong Kong SAR (China) (H), Korea Rep. (SK), and Singapore (S). (Source: Bureau of Agricultural Statistics, Philippines).

Figure 4. The average price per kilogram (US$) of the total Philippine trepang export compared with the average prices paid by the top three markets, namely: Hong Kong SAR (China), Korea Rep., and Singapore. (Source: Bureau of Agricultural Statistics, Philippines).

Mariculture and R&D

In the Philippine experience, marine products for export without a hatchery complement almost always ended up being depleted. The collapse of the sea urchin Tripneustes gratilla fishery (Juinio-Meñez et al., 1998) in Bolinao in the 1990s is a good example. With little regulation, difficulty in arresting violators and sometimes a lame judicial system, commercially important marine resources whose fisheries are highly dependent on wild stock are good targets for exploitation.

For sea cucumbers, while a significant effort on resource management will have to be focused on the regulation of harvest, enhancing the natural stock with hatchery-bred individuals has become a feasible option. In 2000, by modifying the technology used in Japan (Ito, 1994) and India (James et al., 1994) and by using the information on local species (Ong Che and Gomez, 1985), the production ofH. scabra was successfully pilot-tested by Gamboa and Juinio-Meñez (2003) at the Bolinao Marine Laboratory (BML) of the Marine Science Institute of the University of the Philippines, Diliman. With a trepang history spanning several centuries, what took the Government so long to go into hatchery interventions? Two practical reasons are: (a) until very recently, resources in the country have been viewed as something to be extracted not managed; and, (b) the lack of technical skills to embark on the project. For the next two years after the pilot test, small scale experiments were conducted to optimise production within the limitations of the facilities and funding. Using the Isochrysis:Chaetoceros food regime, survival rates to early juvenile ranged from 15-33 %. Preliminary growout experiments were likewise conducted and results showed that juveniles in field cages had better survival rate when they were brought out at a larger size. Those juveniles showed positive growth in both coral sand and muddy seagrass substrate.

From the sea to the restaurant tables of importing countries, there is a long list of knowledge gaps which R&D should address if the country hopes to have a sustainable fishery. Published and unpublished works on Philippine sea cucumbers reveal that research efforts have been exclusively done by people from academia. The technology in Bolinao is ready for pilot-testing in other parts of the country when willing partners and logistics are ready. The long term goal of the invertebrate team at BML is to set up two hatcheries outside Luzon, one in the Visayas and another in Mindanao. The two hatcheries can start with sea cucumber and later expand to other species whose technology exists at BML, like those for Tripneustes gratilla (sea urchin), Haliotis asinina (donkey ear abalone) and Trochus niloticus (topshell). The presence of a hatchery in each of the three island groups of the country will fast track the reseeding intervention meant to enhance the recovery of depleted stocks and at the same time develop new options for sustainable culture of marine invertebrates. Using the multi sector participatory approach, medium to large scale production can be a possible venture, with the marginal fishers as the major sea farmers/ranchers. The feasibility of large scale growout systems is under pilot testing in Viet Nam (Pitt and Duy, 2003).

Also currently investigated at BML is the potential of sea cucumber to mitigate feed wastage (San-Diego-McGlone et al., 2003). Initial findings show that sea cucumbers placed at the bottom of the tank where milkfish is grown can remove feed and fish wastes like NH4, PO4 and NO2. The potentials of polyculture can be an alternative technology that is not only environment friendly, but also adding value to the investment.

Conclusion and recommendations

Is there no dearth of natural stock in the wild for a country with an export trade spanning several centuries? Both fishers and traders have observed a diminishing return for their catch and business efforts, any increase is attributed to the exploitation of smaller and lower valued species or exploration of new fishing grounds. In the absence of any wild stock assessment, the persistent demand for export coupled by good prices in the last decade is alarming. The indiscriminate harvesting of the cheaper species is another cause for alarm. The issues raised as early as 1987 sadly remain, in fact, the state of the resource is even more serious under an economic system that encourages exploitation of the resource but puts little regard for the environment (Haribon Foundation, 2003). Stock enhancement has become a management option to be pursued and concerted efforts to implement management actions are imperative.

Traders and fishers interviewed for this study agree that the fishery should be managed for sustainability. Their own suggestions are as follows:

Three additional recommendations from the authors are as follows:

1. Conduct a survey of the present status of the wild stock and the degree of exploitation. This can be undertaken by the respective regional BFAR offices. Given only the statistics for export and nothing for domestic consumption, it is most likely that the annual harvest is underestimated. Thus, the survey can provide a benchmark for local and national governments when they develop management plans for the sustainability of the resource. The plans should include regulation, monitoring and evaluation of all sectors of the fishery from production to trade.

2. Pursue the R&D efforts that have been started. This will bridge knowledge gaps needed to support sound management plans.

3. If the same issues are being experienced by other sea cucumber exporting countries, agree on concrete measures during this workshop (i.e. ASCAM) that can be commonly observed by the affected countries. Two examples are to endorse a standardized size limit for export and encourage research effort at the regional scale.


Our grateful acknowledgment to the following: Dr Juino-Meñez and Ms Bangi for the various significant support during the hatchery studies; the University of the Philippines (UP) System for the postdoctoral grant to the first author; the Philippine Council for Aquatic and Marine Research and Development (PCAMRD) for the short term grants to the first two authors; the Agriculture and Fisheries Modernization Act (AFMA) research fund for a multi species hatchery project of the last author; the Bolinao Marine Laboratory and the UP Marine Science Institute for the hatchery and other facilities; the UP Mindanao for the research time and space; and the FAO for inviting the Philippines to participate in this workshop. Special thanks to Dr Jun Akamine for the namako-based networking.


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[10] University of the Philippines in Mindanao, Davao City, Philippines
[11] University of the Philippines in Mindanao, Davao City, Philippines
[12] University of the Philippines in the Visayas, Iloilo City, Philippines

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