For most islands and coastal villages in Fiji, sea cucumbers or sasalu is considered a treasured resource that many have relied on for income for many years.
It is a commodity that has been traded by Fijians since the early 1800s and continues today with many communities still heavily relying on it for their livelihoods. High demand from the Asian market has led to it becoming a multi-million dollar industry globally. As a result, more and more communities have been collecting sea cucumbers further afield and to deeper depths with the use of SCUBA gear, and this has led to the severe overexploitation of sea cucumber stocks throughout Fiji.
Apart from an awareness program to help communities better understand about the negative impact of overexploiting their sea cucumber stock, the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) has also embarked on a community support program to assist villagers improve the way they process sea cucumbers so that they can get a better price for their product. The idea being if they can “value-add” and get a higher price, this might take away the pressure to collect large numbers at any one time.
WCS is currently working with the villages of Natuvu in Cakaudrove Province and Saolo in Bua Province who have reasonably healthy stocks to implement a community-based sea cucumber management plan to protect their sea cucumber stock by sustainably harvesting.
In June 2017, a team led by WCS fisheries officer, Watisoni Lalavanua headed to two villages, Natuvu and Saolo villages to provide training on post-harvest processing of sea cucumbers using regional standards that were developed recently through an ACIAR Project, and in partnership with the Pacific Community (SPC). The main objective of the training was to train fishers in best practices of processing sea cucumbers into high-quality bêche-de-mer. More than 60 villagers were part of the training.
Participants learned how to handle sea cucumbers while harvesting from the sea, the proper gutting method, and how to cook, salt, smoke and dry the product. Most importantly, they learned how following these best practices would fetch a higher market price, and hence they should not need to harvest so intensely and can afford to reduce their fishing pressure on fast dwindling stocks.
The fishers were also given a i-Taukei version of the ACIAR produced sea cucumber processing manual and a DVD for their future reference.