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How Farmers in Zanzibar Are Pioneering The Farming of Sea Cucumbers

Zanibar Fishermen

It’s worth remembering that farming of anything is not exactly natural. It’s how we’ve managed to organise our food production and produce it in volumes and formats that work with the way we purchase and consume food. However, there are new approaches being developed across the world that focus on farming in such a way that impacts positively on the environment. The growing trend of farming sea cucumbers is one such approach that is boosting the bioeconomy of Zanzibar.

Across the world, a huge amount of the animal and seafood products we eat are farmed. On land, very few societies remain that rely on harvesting wild produce and the few that do like the Hadza of Tanzania are so rare that their way of life is a key part of any tourist itinerary. As the world population has increased so farming has increasingly adopted the industrialised approach driven by efficiency, yield and mechanisation.

When it comes to harvesting the bounty of the seas, those principles have lead to the disastrous overexploitation of fish stocks which, in turn, has driven the development of aquaculture or fish farming. According to the Food and Agriculture Organisation’s latest report on the state of the world’s fisheries, aquaculture production increased by 527% between 1990 and 2018. According to the latest figures aquaculture supplied 82 million tonnes of seafood in 2018, compared to 96 million tonnes from commercial fishing

FAO State of the World Fisheries and Aquaculture Production ...

However, in recent times the debate about how to produce the food we consume has focused on how it’s produced and the impact that those methods of production have on the environment and its socio-economic impact. For most people in the west their experience of food is as a consumer and it seems that when given an informed choice, the sustainability of the farming system is a key factor for the majority of consumers.

However, for the majority of the world’s population, their experience of food straddles the boundary between consumer and producer. On land many grow a proportion of their food on small plots often supplemented by hunting or gathering of wild protein and plants. When it comes to seafood the picture is similar, for instance supplementing rice production with small scale fish farming in the paddy fields.

The explosion of prawn farming is southeast Asia, for instance, was accompanied by the devastation of mangrove systems which are crucial nurseries for many fish species. Then there’s the problem that many farmed fish species rely on fish meal which is produced by the industrial harvesting of millions of tonnes of wild fish. Add to this the widespread use of powerful antibiotics to try and keep disease in farmed fish at bay then it’s no surprise that the farming of the seas has run into many of the same problems that farming of the land has already run into.

However, a grassroots movement to transform the way individuals can farm the seas has quietly been gaining adherents, across the world. At the heart of the process is a concept called the bioeconomy. This comprises those parts of the economy that use renewable biological resources from land and sea – such as crops, forests, fish, animals and micro-organisms – to produce food, materials and energy.

A Lucrative Delicacy

An article published recently on allafrica.com highlights how aquaculture when done right, can be used to transform the lives of poor farmers and build a sustainable industry. The article highlights how the harvesting of wild seaweed had been incredibly important for some 25 000 Zanzibari farmers, 80% of whom are women. However, warming oceans have threatened the practice.

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Warmer waters represent a real threat to seaweed production, inhibiting its growth and making it susceptible to bacteria. The seaweed the farmers collect is no longer flourishing. Their only option is to venture into the cooler, much deeper waters, but most of the farmers can’t swim and the stronger currents can damage the seaweed. This is not the only obstacle: a drop in the global price of seaweed has left these farmers working six-hour days to earn $0.44 – for the two kilograms they usually manage to collect.

In the face of these difficulties the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation has intervened and in conjunction with an NGO called Blue Ventures has set out to train many of these local farmers to start farming sea cucumbers. There is a huge demand for these filter feeders in Asia, especially as their numbers are dwindling. Depending on quality, this grey filter feeder currently earns farmers up to USD 100 per kilogram once dried.

Sea cucumbers could be valuable in other ways too. Scientists have discovered that they contain bioactive compounds that can be used for medicinal purposes. Their main benefit, though is in the environmental benefits farming them provide. If farmed sustainably, they boost biodiversity in the area, hoovering up dead and discarded matter from the seafloor, a process that is vital to the health of seagrass meadows and coral reefs.

A Farming Model with Many Benefits

The juvenile sea cucumbers that are grown from spawn can be collected by farmers and are nurtured in protective pens until they grow big enough to be harvested. What makes farming these creatures so versatile is that they are relatively low maintenance, as long as the depth and location are right, the pens are secure and predators are kept away.

Sea cucumber farming in Madagascar helping to increase all kinds ...
Blue Ventures

Timothy Klückow is an expert in the field from Blue Ventures’ Aquaculture Programme. Leading the training on FAO’s behalf, he explains, “Farming sea cucumbers is one of the few net positive aquaculture models that I know of. There are only winners when you reintroduce these animals to overfished areas.”

Like a gift that keeps giving, the process of farming the sea cucumbers has potentially huge beneficial impacts on the local marine ecosystem. It reduces reliance on declining coastal fisheries, enables communities to adapt to the effects of climate change and adds value to locally available biological resources.

“Apart from being more resilient, with a higher tolerance for warming waters than the seaweeds that are cultured here, sea cucumbers are a critical ecosystem engineer and individuals benefit from this and the increased incomes from the sale of mature animals.” Klückow states.

Courtesy Blue Ventures

Many of those receiving training have a deep understanding of local marine life and it’s thought that the new knowledge being provided could be a significant boost to Zanzibar’s marine economy with crossover benefits for a variety of marine species including milkfish and mud crabs.

Mwenaisha Makame, one of the early participants in the training programme said “I learnt many important things on this course, and I’d really like to do this mix of sea cucumber and seaweed farming to increase my income. I hope that my daughter and son will one day be interested in getting involved too.”

Sources allafrica.com, www.guardian.com, Blue Ventures, Core.ac.uk, FAO.org

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