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Thursday 4 February 2016 | Published in Regional


MOOLOOLABA – How does a sea cucumber for dinner tonight sound? While most people may not jump at the thought right now, for Papua New Guinea those echinoderms could be a huge money-maker.

Australian researchers have been awarded A$1.7 million to help develop a mariculture industry in PNG, although it could be years before exports get off the ground.

Mariculture is the cultivation of marine species in sea water.

University of the Sunshine Coast professor of Sustainable Tropical Agriculture, Paul Southgate, will be one of the researchers taking part in the project.

He studied the sustainability of fish farming in Papua New Guinea for five years, and this next phase will most likely take another five years.

According to Professor Southgate, the major problem with the industry was its sustainability – specifically in terms of overfishing.

In 2009 the PNG Government introduced a moratorium on the sea cucumber fishing industry, in an attempt to replenish fish stocks.

If you actually look at the literature it is probably easier to list what they don’t supposedly cure.

“Until 2009 there was an annual fishery for sea cucumbers, and it was the classic boom and bust type cycle,” Professor Southgate said.

“These are animals that live in very shallow water, they are very accessible, very vulnerable – so overfishing was something that happened on a regular basis.

“What we are trying to do is bring a little bit more sustainability to those communities, because their livelihoods were obviously taken away.”

Professor Southgate said if fisherman in Papua New Guinea were given permission to recommence collecting sea cucumbers, there needed to be a method of determine wild stock from farm stock.

He and other researchers have been working on ways to mark animals, which have been cultured and could legally be sold.

“If you give people permission to culture an animal and then export it, but you don’t give them permission to collect them from the wild, then the first question that we think about is ‘how do we know what they are harvesting and sending overseas is actually from aquaculture?’” Professor Southgate said.

“We are doing a lot of research into ways that we can mark animals that are cultured and produced in a hatchery, and distinguish them from the wild collected animals.

“We basically put them in dyes so you can actually mark them to tell them apart] but you need a laboratory and a microscope, which is obviously not that practical.”

Professor Southgate said the refinement of those methods was the next step in the project, and would be done in Papua New Guinea.

Since the moratorium was introduced in 2009, he said sea cucumber populations had recovered well.

“Most places that were renowned before as being good sea cucumber areas now have very, very healthy stocks,” Professor Southgate said.

Ornamental species like giant clams and clown fish will also be farmed.

While sea cucumbers may not be attractive, Asian countries are a major importer of the delicacy because of its range of medicinal benefits.

Professor Southgate said some believed the marine creature contains everything from aphrodisiac properties to cures for cancer and pain relief.

“If you actually look at the literature, it is probably easier to list what they don’t supposedly cure,” he said.

“They are good form the genuine nutrition perspective as well.”

Professor Southgate said high-quality dried sea cucumber could be worth as much as $400 per kilogramme.

Lower valued species were much cheaper, worth between $20 and $50 per kilogramme.

However, he said it would be at least five years before Papua New Guinea would be anywhere near ready to export sea cucumber.

Once that did happen, he said their would also be the
opportunity for the establishment of strong trade links with Australia. - ABC