Sea cucumber, the Pacific Islands second most important commercial fishery and the longest surviving export commodity is facing intense exploitation pressure. Before tuna fishing was realized in the middle of the last century, Pacific islanders were processing beche-de-mer for sale to merchant ships visiting the Islands. Sea cucumber and beche-de-mer, its dried form, is highly priced food item in China the main consumer of global production. But not only this, medicinal properties in sea cucumber has been known in China for years, yet its only recently that modern interest has been attracted to look into its pharmaceutical properties. High demand and lucrative price paid but also weak fishery management controls are to blame for the spiralling decline of sea cucumber worldwide.
Here in the FSM Sea cucumbers are not only an exportable commodity, some species such as sandfish (Loangon), Brown curryfish (Werer), and Dragonrfish (Koid) are eaten and sold for an income as in Pohnpei. Most sea cucumbers are found in shallow waters and almost immobile and so easy to see and collect by fishermen. Besides they make a much easier species to study. Yet, they have been accorded much less attention as to those given to other species such as finfish, sharks, turtles, corals or MPAs. Many species remain unknown to science; for example one commercially important species (Hairy greyfish – Actinopyga sp) present only in Yap, Palau and recently recorded in Pohnpei is yet to be identified. Limited knowledge is complicated by the variation in the naming system (trade, scientific and local names) used, where they live and the best way to assess them. Without underwater information, catch and export information are important however these are rarely collected. The challenge for Pacific island fisheries agencies is simply lack of stronger management and monitoring system which stems from limited knowledge of these species, the same situation being faced by other FSM States.
Over the last three weeks, SPC is assisting Pohnpei State and the National Government to begin the process of developing an improved and transparent system for managing and monitoring the fishery, and enabling the State and residents to derive maximise economic benefit from their resource. Beginning with this process, a team of surveyors from the FSM Dept. of R&D, OFA, EPA, CSP and Fish and Wildlife led by Kalo Pakoa, SPC’s Invertebrate Fisheries Scientist completed surveys around Pohnpei proper. Commercial fishing here in Pohnpei, Yap and Kosrae are closed for up to 10 years now. FSM, like a few other protected fisheries in the Pacific are the target for commercial interest especially traders who will do whatever it takes to get supplies. Shortage of sea cucumber worldwide has created escalating demand for these products, and as 70% of the Pacific Fisheries are closed, you can see why traders will not overlook the FSM Islands.
So prior to any decision to go fishing, proper systems need to be established first. Resources assessments intend to determine resource health and whether stocks can support sustainable harvest. Trained officers will take the same surveys to other islands in the State who are affected by the same system of management.
At the meeting held on Friday 28 June at the WCPFC conference room, concern stakeholders learn of the critical state of sea cucumber fisheries in the Pacific, and especially what is happening in the FSM regarding aquaculture and ranching of sea cucumber and as well the preliminary results of the surveys in Pohnpei. While some species show signs of recovery, one species; Sandfish (Holothuria scabra) or Langon as is known locally seems to be in trouble. Interestingly record of Hairy greyfish – Actinopyga sp, now extend the natural distribution of this species to Pohnpei beside Yap and Palau.
The stakeholders with these facts discussed and proposed useful ideas to be incorporated into measures in the new Plan. Amongst ideas put forward, stakeholders felt this industry is old and about time it be fully localized, while good idea, the risk of closing down opportunity of benefiting from competitive price from foreign investors is a risk. License for export, permit for exports, and MCS were proposed as government revenue avenues and as tool to gather catch and export information. Permanent closure and short opening season is the approach and, only species prescribed will be allowed to be fished in an open season by area. Species specific quota by area and for each open season, and minimum harvest size limits by species were proposed. Stakeholders agree with the need for measures to increase resources rent to the government and opted to use the same system of auctioning of license to the best bidder. SPC will continue to work with the National government and Pohnpei State to get the plan to completion.