A sustainable farm rescues the sea cucumber on the Caribbean coast of Panama

Panasea
4 min readDec 11, 2023

Originally published in Spanish in Forbes Central America

Photo by Luis Gonzalez on Unsplash

“I saw that this activity wasn’t sustainable because we were fishing the last sea cucumbers. There’s a significant issue, and we need to repopulate these animals,” Grossman tells Efe.

Surrounded by dense, humid jungle and facing the azure waters of the Panamanian Caribbean, a group of scientists tirelessly drives PanaSea, the only sustainable project for tropical sea cucumbers in Latin America.

“The idea was born 10 years ago in Nicaragua, when the current president of PanaSea, David Grossman, was fishing, processing, and exporting sea cucumbers with local fishermen. There, he discovered that the activity was not environmentally friendly, and after the social upheaval of 2018, he moved the project to Panama, starting from scratch.

“I saw that this activity wasn’t sustainable because we were fishing the last sea cucumbers. There’s a significant issue, and we need to repopulate these animals,” Grossman tells Efe.

The company rescued a neglected structure in Puerto Lindo, Colón, and transformed it into a sea cucumber breeding facility. Now, with the help of a $150,000 grant from the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) Lab, they have a laboratory to observe the development of these worm-like animals and produce their food.

Part of the growth process takes place in the sea within some marine ranches, which in turn help repopulate the area devastated years ago by the Asian market.

Due to overfishing and the consequent near-extinction of the sea cucumber, Panama — like other countries in Latin America and the Caribbean — imposed a permanent ban in 2003, prohibiting its extraction, possession, and commercialization.”

“Eighteen months ago, when the sea cucumber was protected, we began. It was overfished and easily attainable. Locals were harvesting up to 300 pounds per person per day. Now our aim is to reintroduce it into its habitat,” explains Daniel Velarde, the general manager and head of research.

For this reason, Grossman collaborated with Panamanian authorities to launch an executive decree, becoming the sole company with permission for research and development in the country.

“The fishing ban still stands, and exporting sea cucumbers from Panama is prohibited. We are the only ones with a research and aquaculture permit,” adds Velarde, surrounded by microscopes and chalkboards.

TRIPLE IMPACT: ECONOMIC, SUSTAINABLE, AND COMMUNITY-DRIVEN

“If we did everything in tanks, it would be highly beneficial commercially, but we wouldn’t see natural repopulation in the areas,” shares Laura Canevari, executive director of Itaca Solutions and sustainability head at PanaSea.

“The project has a triple impact, aiming for a positive influence on the environment, economy, and social aspects of the area,” explains Canevari.

PanaSea’s primary commercial goal is exporting sea cucumbers to China, where they are considered a delicacy and command high prices in Asian markets.

“We are ready to start on a commercial scale. We’ll sell dried sea cucumbers in China, but we also aim to develop other products like pills because sea cucumbers are rich in collagen,” highlights Grossman.

In addition to replenishing the area, the company collaborates with the community of Puerto Lindo, creating a local product. In the future, they hope to train a team to harvest sea cucumbers, as their resemblance to stones makes them difficult to detect on the seabed.”

“We believe it can help in community cohesion by fostering an identity through a locally generated product and by enhancing understanding within the system, as there’s a great need for environmental education,” adds Canevari.

The group of four young scientists comprises Panamanian students and graduates in marine biology who work as volunteers.

“We’re placing our bets on research, development, and youth because it’s a fresh perspective that analyzes what these organisms eat and how they grow. We’re relying on their observations,” notes Velarde.

The biologists have various types of rooms, including one specifically for producing food (two types of algae), where they observe the sea cucumber’s development and nurture it.

“These microalgae are like milk for babies…(there are) different species of algae, but not all have the same nutritional properties,” explains Álvaro Polo, the algae development advisor, amid water tanks containing the organisms.

After months of arduous work, with semi-paralysis due to the pandemic, they currently have about 200 one-gram sea cucumbers, with a survival rate of 7%.

“Thanks to scientific research, we’ve achieved higher survival rates, having extracted two thousand of these creatures from the tanks. We know it’s possible; now, we’ll fine-tune to start producing in larger numbers,” details Velarde.

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Panasea

Sustainable Sea Cucumber Cultivation in Panama