January 15th Sea Cucumber Fishery

Today was my 10th day in Palau, and the 8th day of my conservation & development class. This morning we met with Irving and Tiare with OSCA in Ngardmau state. What was amazing about Ngardmau, was that for such a small group, their conservation efforts and future plans were extremely organized.

One of the topics Tiare discussed was Ngardmau’s sea cucumber fishery management and monitoring. In Palau, women generally collect invertebrates, and sea cucumber intestine is apparently delicious, but I have yet to confirm this with my own taste buds. Sea cucumber harvesting is generally for subsistence or domestic sale, but from June-December 2011 commercial harvest was allowed in the state. At this time, little management was in place but they were able to collect some data and were lucky enough to have data from a survey in 2009.

The data were astonishing and played a major role in the decision for conservation in Ngardmau. Over this time about 24,000  five gallon buckets were harvested, which equated to 88% of the sea cucumber population. They also had data for the average price of a bucket when it was sold to buyers and the corresponding prices when sold for consumption abroad, showing a significant amount of potential revenue lost. Because of this, the community decided to prioritize protection and sustainable harvesting of this resource.

Within their Marine Protected Area (MPA), Ngardmau has established enforcement, a sea cucumber monitoring program, and created a plan for sustainable harvest when a healthy population is reestablished. This is an incredible feat for a small community to accomplish in 3 years. They have even thought about marketing the sea cucumbers to certain places in the states where sustainably harvested food could increase the market value.

The MPA is a part of a larger conservation effort in Ngardmau that includes three other areas. Ngardmau is also the only state that has incorporated every type of habitat into their conservation plan. This includes upland forest, savannah, mangrove and sea grasses, as well as open ocean. This is really amazing, and important because land use can have a large impact In marine ecosystems.

After the talk we were lucky enough to take a boat to see the MPA, and snorkel to look at sea cukes. A few days earlier I had participated in collecting sea cucumbers in the fishing village of Ollei by feeling for them with my feet in the sea grass bed. Needless to say, my feet were not adept at locating said cucumbers. With a snorkel and mask however, it was easy to locate three types of cucumbers in large numbers.

I don’t know if commercial harvesting of cucumbers will ever resume in Ngardmau, but I take comfort in knowing that if it does it will be sustainably harvested and managed by people who have an appreciation for the future health of this resource. I am also sure that if this happens, Ngnardmau will see a commensurate amount of financial benefits.