No one would think that an amorphous animal like the sea cucumber has the power to modify the ecosystems of the seas, oceans, and the international market.
As unlikely as it sounds, these small creatures have many virtues, all beginning with their main function, which is the recycling of the seabed. Their high value as defenders of the ecosystem led entrepreneur David Grossman to found the first sea cucumber farm in Latin America in Panama. “Through bioturbation, sea cucumbers remove sediment and oxygenate it so that other organisms can live within it. They also consume organic and inorganic material and return it to the seabed with a high nutrient content through their fecal waste,” explains Luis Felaco, a leading biologist at the commercial aquaculture company PanaSea Global.
Colorful coral reefs also benefit from this peculiar organism, as the alkalinity of their excrement protects them from the effects of ocean acidification.
“In many areas, their decrease has caused coastal waters to become turbid or contaminated. Their loss has made massive bleaching phenomena a more serious threat to corals,” noted Felaco.
But it’s not all rosy for these creatures because, like other exotic animals, they are endangered.
According to the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), there are around 1,250 different sea cucumber species in the world’s oceans, but about sixteen are threatened with extinction due to intense extraction. This decline is due to the sea cucumber’s popularity in the Asian market, where it is sold for over 300 dollars per pound, considered a select dish and medicinal product.
“In China, it is believed that this species, part of the family of sea stars and sea urchins, stops muscle aging, strengthens the immune system, and helps treat fatigue and arthritis,” emphasized the entity.
In Mexico, uncontrolled collection of sea cucumbers has left coastal areas desolate, generating unemployment and leaving the sea at the mercy of climate change. A situation that PanaSea Global aims to prevent in Panama.
This is affirmed by David Grossman, entrepreneur and founder of the organization PanaSea Global, who in 2018 discovered the value of these creatures and how to leverage them without harming them.
“This is an initiative that positively impacts the environment and the local economy of the community of Puerto Lindo, on the upper coast of the province of Colón (…) Our aquaculture production, unlike collection, involves raising and cultivating them in a controlled area,” he stated.
In a phone interview, Grossman confessed that the good condition of Portobelo National Park and the pristine nature surrounding it were essential in establishing the farm in this location.
“The quality of the water and the environment facilitates the logistics of the entire process, as in many coastal areas, we can find wild breeding species on which we still depend for the proper functioning of this system,” he said.
In the Panamanian Caribbean, six commercial species have been registered (Holothuria impatiens, H. arenicola, Actinopyga agassizii, Astichopus multifidus), but at present, PanaSea Global is working with two, Holothuria mexicana and Isostichopus badionotus. These have been researched and raised by Panamanian scientists, who have taken them from juvenile sea cucumbers to adults.
Production and Harvest
But how do sea cucumbers reproduce? According to the entrepreneur, it all starts with the extraction of sea cucumbers in shallow areas, between 2 to 15 meters through diving and manually to avoid mistreatment or injuries to their skin. After this, they are transported in plastic containers with or without seawater to the cultivation site, where they undergo quick baths with freshwater and are placed in filtered seawater irradiated with ultraviolet (UV) light at the appropriate temperature for the species (28ºC up to a maximum of 31°C).
When they reach about 2 centimeters, they are taken to the sheds in the bay. There, in those cages located within the sea, they grow until they reach a size large enough to be released in their final stage. Subsequently, they are harvested, and the process begins again. To produce artificial seeds, about 100 individuals must be used for fertilization.
In December 2022, PanaSea Global carried out the first harvest of 500 sea cucumbers. This was done symbolically in conjunction with the Ministry of Environment (MiAmbiente), the Authority of Aquatic Resources of Panama (ARAP), the Ministry of Commerce and Industries (MICI), among other government entities.
Triple Bottom Line Operation
The producer commented that since there is no extreme expense in feeding these organisms — they feed on what is around them — the cultivation of sea cucumbers is more economical than that of fish. Hence, it is more profitable.
Grossman also ensured that his business is based on a triple bottom line operation: environmental, social, and economic.
An opinion supported by the former administrator of ARAP, Flor Torrijos, who pointed out that this activity positions Panama as the hub of aquaculture. “No other country has done this in the entire continent. This is foreign investment in the hands of locals in Puerto Lindo.”
Currently, PanaSea Global employs 25 people, 11 men and 14 women, from Puerto Lindo, La Guaira, and Puerto Pilón. These collaborators, who generate income for their communities, have also learned to care for the marine species that they used to ‘disdain’.
“I never thought that this ugly little animal that we used to see so close on the beach would be so important, but now that I work with them, I value this opportunity because it not only contributes to my community but also to the world,” said Alida Guerrero, a site worker and resident of Puerto Lindo.
From its inception, the organization also provides opportunities for university students and institutions like the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute to conduct their research and theses.
Although it is far from big cities like other commercial activities, the planting and harvesting of sea cucumbers face threats. Biologist Luis Felaco detailed that the main threat is the increasing demand from the market and inadequate fisheries management.
“The large Chinese companies paid Latin American fishermen to obtain sea cucumbers, and this triggered the end of sea cucumber populations in the Caribbean. That’s why we are vigilant because, being coveted, sea cucumbers can be stolen from their cages.”
Felaco explained that their activity also competes with hospitality and hotel businesses that have been gaining strength in this area due to its tourism potential. “These lands have high economic value and are attractive for creating marinas, accompanied by boats that can be risky for these species due to pollution or being in the pathway of these vessels.”
The expert said that the support of authorities is important to confront the international competition that this industry may face. “We have shown that this business is promising because there are several aspects of sea cucumbers that can be exploited. We want to expand and support the conservation of other species.”
According to statistical data, demand for sea cucumbers has doubled in 10 years, and the catch ranges from 20,000 to 45,000 metric tons.
Grossman, who is awaiting authorization to fully begin exporting his sea cucumbers, asserts that if granted, by early 2024, he could be harvesting 10,000 kilograms of sea cucumbers, leading to an increase in job opportunities.
“It’s the key to change this Caribbean coast because this is a positive investment. If we have the permits by the end of 2024, we could be exporting 80,000 kilograms annually of sea cucumbers and thereby generating 200 direct jobs for these communities that need it so much,” he stated.
Grossman assures that he has investors from Asia who are interested in these products. “If we had the authorization, we would be exporting them to China every three months, our main client. We have already shown Panama and it’s authorities that we are not exporting the last sea cucumbers; instead, we are cultivating and caring for them.”