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Burrowing Deep: Sea Cucumbers Changing Lives

The Department of Science and Technology – Philippine Council for Agriculture, Aquatic and Natural Resources Research and Development (DOST-PCAARRD), DOST-PCAARRD recently held virtual events to commemorate their 10th anniversary. Included in the virtual event is a webinar on sea cucumbers last June 24, 2021, at 9:00 am through the DOST-PCAARRD Facebook page.

The Center’s Project Leaders participated in the webinar as resource speakers. Ms. Elgen Arriesgado (Project Leader - Sea cucumber fisheries) talked about the sea cucumber fisheries status in Mindanao and shared some of their findings in their Project, revealing the most commonly gathered/traded species in Mindanao. Project 2 (Ecology, Biology, and Genetics of the White Teatfish) Leader, Dr. Venus Leopardas, tackled the importance of management and LGU cooperation on the conservation of the white teatfish, and how the Project ventured far and deep to gain information on this species. Dr. Dan Arriesgado (Project Leader – Mariculture of White Teatfish) shared about developing their mariculture technology for the White Teatfish as well as their initiatives to replenish its population. Dr. Wilfredo Uy (Program Leader/Project Leader – Sandfish Culture Production) spoke on the feasibility of farming Sandfish as an alternative livelihood to local fisherfolks, and how sea cucumbers are changing lives in both local communities, and marine ecosystems.

The Q&A portion of the webinar provided a venue to further discuss their findings and impressions. Many interesting questions were thrown to the speakers and were satisfactorily answered – which hopefully enlightened the eager audience. Overall, the webinar received positive reviews and was well-received by the local, and international audiences.

The Center extends their gratitude to DOST-PCAARRD for giving this opportunity to share our knowledge and findings, and encourage young researchers to pursue research on sea cucumbers.

DOST Undersecretary visits NICER for Sea Cucumber Program

Department of Science and Technology (DOST) Undersecretary for Research and Development, Dr. Rowena Cristina L. Guevara, along with DOST-X Director Alfonso Alamban, came to visit MSU-Naawan last March 1, 2020, to see the facilities, updates, and highlights of the NICER Program for Sea Cucumber as well as to chat with the staff behind the Program.

Project leaders, along with the Director of Research, Dr. Gonzales, and Chancellor, Dr. Roa, gave a tour of the facilities of the Program. The esteemed guests were enthusiastic during the tour as they continuously engaged in a conversation with the leaders regarding sea cucumbers, their respective projects, and current facilities.

Program highlights and updates were presented by Dr. Wilfredo Uy. The presentation sparked a discussion among the project members and collaborators to explore more collaborators from different sectors to upgrade the Program. Usec Guevara also emphasized the need to have a bigger, and centralized database since the Program is and will be handling a great deal of data as it is gearing towards becoming a Center for Sea Cucumbers. Furthermore, Usec. Guevara lauded the NICER Program team for their tireless efforts in achieving the targets of the Program.

A Glimpse of the Life of Sea Cucumber Gatherers in Mindanao

The vast ocean provides abundant resources that benefited mankind since ancient times. Among these precious gems are the sea cucumbers. These organisms provide a significant contribution to the marine environment as well as a livelihood to coastal communities. Sea cucumbers provide a substantial source of income for over 1000 years along the Indo-Pacific region, and now expanding worldwide. As a result, increasing exploitation of these species is observed in the wild, primarily to satisfy the demand of the Asian markets. Sea cucumbers are given as gifts, or used as special ingredients in Asian cuisine. Furthermore, they have been discovered to have therapeutic compounds such as anti-aging and anti-cancer properties, improve immunity and bacterial defense, nourish the blood, and can treat kidney and reproductive organ disorders among others. Therefore, the inclination of these nutritional and health benefits encourages the active harvesting of sea cucumbers globally.

Sea cucumber gatherers usually sell their products as dried; known as "beche-de-mer" or “trepang”. These processed products could generate good money but the process of making high quality stone-dried sea cucumbers with 90-100% dryness requires 3-5 days of tedious drying and processing. In addition, it requires great skill and knowledge from gathering to drying. During the gathering, gatherers depend on the tides and consume around 4-6 hours in collecting sea cucumbers. Gatherers like the Badjaos can skin dive up to 10-15 fathoms and can stay underwater up to 15 minutes without any equipment in collecting high valued sea cucumbers such as the White Teatfish (Holothuria fuscogilva), Curryfish (Stichopus hermanni) and Prickly Redfish (Thelenota ananas). Gatherers are also experts in handling different sea cucumber species like the Curryfish (locally known as hanginan) and its related air-sensitive species. After collection, sea cucumbers are sorted according to species and are gutted to remove the internal organs. Sea cucumbers are boiled for 5-30 minutes depending on the species. Some are smoke-cured after boiling while others are immediately sun-dried for a couple of days depending on the species and the demand of the buyers. Gatherers will have to wait until the dried sea cucumbers are as hard as a rock which is then considered to be ready for export. Depending on the sea cucumber species, sea cucumber gatherers could get a net income of PHP500-3000 per week. In addition, the rarer and bigger the sea cucumber species are, the higher the monetary value is in the Asian markets. However, health risks are higher in collecting these high valued sea cucumbers. The earnings of the gatherers may probably equate to the dangers they encounter during diving. Thus, the special beche-de-mer in the Asian markets and restaurants are the fruits of hard labor of the sea cucumber gatherers!

Sea cucumber livelihood is not an easy task. It requires time and effort from gathering or diving to the tedious processing. However, what is more important to contemplate in this line of livelihood is a passionate soul who does not only think of their income, but also on the sustainability of sea cucumbers which could last for the generations to come.

MarTech Breaks Through

One month of Enhanced Community Quarantine (ECQ) proved to be ineffective in obstructing the progress of NICER Project 3 which is also known as the MarTech. During the height of the quarantine period, the MarTech staff prepared for the preplanned installation of hatchery equipment, and materials for future induction activities. The whole month of April was dedicated to building the spawning tank for the broodstock and also to the broodstock maintenance. Reading and reviewing related articles to the project was also tackled by the research assistants and staff.

On May 7, 2020, the first trial for spawning induction was conducted. The broodstock from Tawi-Tawi and Zamboanga Peninsula were induced through desiccation, salinity shock, and food bath. Unfortunately, the eight broodstock from Tawi-Tawi that were subjected to the salinity of 24 ppt have eviscerated after the trial and died the following day. No spawning event was recorded during the first trial.

On May 27, 2020, the project travelled to Tubajon, Laguindingan Misamis Oriental to collect broodstocks. The divers and fishermen were able to collect 11 broodstocks. Unexpected turn of events led to a series of spawning where two female broodstock spurted their egg cells which affected some of the males to release their gametes too. All of this took place inside the plastic box that was supposed to be used as a transport container for the broodstocks. The containers were transported to the hatchery. The eggs were cleaned and checked under the microscope prior to stocking in the larval rearing tanks. Initial egg count in one of the tanks wounded up to 22,000,000 eggs. The next day, May 28, 2020, the project was able to collect 15 more broodstock from Tubajon which spawned during the transport. Thus, determining which of the specimen is male or female was inexecutable.

The unforeseen spawning events led to an unexpected turn of activities. The project 3 hatchery is now operating and is able to rear the larvae up to the present pentactula stage. The project is now preplanning its travels to areas where possible on-site hatcheries are to be established. Memorandum of Agreement drafts are being laid out and other future plans are being discussed among the project team.

These are just some of the MarTech’s feats within the span of three months. All the staff are exuberant to take more bold and systematic steps towards pulling off the project goals.

About the contributor:

Sheena A. Quimson is a Science Research Assistant for Project 3-MarTech. She was a former MSU-IIT student who was chosen as BFAR-X grantee for Bachelor of Science in Fisheries. She is now taking her master’s degree in Aquaculture. She is a people person and loves to take the challenges that come with the NICER program. It is an exciting idea for her to be part of something big, and novel as the NICER Program.

Balik-tanaw

The white teatfish, Holothuria fuscogilva, is one of the most fished and poached sea cucumbers in the tropical Indo-Pacific region, with value highest among others and, thus, under greatest demand. On August 2019, this species was listed under the CITES Appendix II, to ensure that fishing and international trade of this species are sustainable and do not contribute to further decline. In Philippines, the biology and ecology of this species is less understood, although there was already a breakthrough on its captive breeding and hatchery technology since 2012 by MSU Naawan researchers under the DOST – PCAARRD funding. The life history-traits of teatfish in general, i.e. low mobility, density-dependent reproduction, external fertilization, presumed slow growth, and late sexual maturity are contributing factors to their vulnerability to overfishing. The extent of overfishing in the country may also become aggravated by the lack of knowledge on the species habitat, behavior, and genetic diversity. This gap should be addressed in order to promote the conservation and sustainable use of this species.

The Niche Centers in the Regions for R&D (NICER) Program: Sea Cucumber R&D Center, established in MSU Naawan on July, investigates the ecology, biology, and population genetic diversity of H. fuscogilva, locally called sus-an, duruan, or susuan, in Mindanao. This project will run for three years and the reconnaissance survey is an initial step to select monitoring and/or sample collection sites and also to establish linkages with local partners. Project members had gone to several places in Mindanao since September 2019. In our field visits, many stakeholders such as LGUs, NGAs, local coastal community members, among others, were consulted regarding the conduct of the research. So far, the challenges encountered by the Project were brought by the rareness of the White Teatfish and its preference in deeper habitats, LGU support and community coordination, and COVID-19-related delays of field, laboratory, and office works.

Over the months of being in and out of the field and with some project activities placed into hiatus due to covid threats, members further appreciated the value of communication, collaboration, and transparency. Despite all the challenges, the project was able to forge collaborations with other SUCs and LGU- Lopez Jaena, collected reconnaissance survey data and signed Prior Informed Consents (PICs), conducted initial phase of monitoring and collection of tissue samples, capacitated graduate students, collaborators, and local partners on some research protocols, established the upgrading of the MSU Naawan Genetics Laboratory, and resumed activities using new-norm work arrangements.

On the second week of July 2020, the NICER Program will commemorate its 1st Anniversary. It is with high hope and fervent prayers that everyone in the Program, the MSU Naawan, partner SUCs, NGAs, LGUs, local communities, and the DOST will continue to rise above the pressing, unprecedented, and emerging challenges during these trying times of COVID-19 pandemic.

May the force be with us. Para sa bayan!

About the contributor:

Venus E. Leopardas is the Project Leader of the “Ecology, biology, and genetic diversity of white teatfish Holothuria fuscogilva (Cherbonnier 1980) in Mindanao” project. She is a faculty of College of Science and Environment, Department of Marine Biology and Environmental Science of MSU Naawan. Her field of interest is on marine aquatic ecology, specifically on benthic communities.

Approval of the Sea Cucumber R&D Center

April 5, 2019 marked a call for another research mission of Mindanao State University at Naawan (MSUN) after the approval of the establishment for Sea Cucumber R&D Center by the DOST Governing Council and endorsed by the Regional Development Council (RDC).

This started on December 6-7, 2018 when a write-shop assisted by the National Research Council of the Philippines (NRCP) under the R&D Lead Program, and consultant, Dr. Asuncion B. de Guzman was conducted. The write-shop garnered participants from: CPSC, USTPPanaon, MSU-LNAC, MSU-MSAT, MSU-TCTO, BFAR-X and DOST-X. The program proposal originally targeted Region X areas and has undergone a series of presentations from the Director’s Council PCAARRD, Los Baños on March 5, 2019, followed by EXECOM meeting at PNRI, Diliman, Quezon City on March 13, 2019. Then it was expanded to Mindanao and to the DOST Governing Council meeting held at the PhilVocs, Diliman, Quezon City where it was finally elevated to the national level. The long wait has finally ended when the Memorandum of Agreement (MOA) was signed last July 19, 2019 with a grant of 72M Pesos for a period of 3 years.

Meeting with the Funding Agency

An inception meeting with the DOST-PCAARRD and Science for Change Program was conducted for the DOST-GIA funded NICER Program, Sea Cucumber Center for Research and Development was held on October 21, 2019 at MSU Naawan IFRD Function room. The meeting was organized to facilitate information dissemination in terms of the DOST-GIA Technical/Financial Monitoring Guidelines.

Overview, updates, and plans of the different projects under the program was presented by each project head. Each presentation was followed by a forum to provide an avenue for discussion and clarification with the participants.

Collaborative Research Agreement Signing

Indeed, teamwork makes the dream work. A step closer to achieving the National Agenda of R&D was obtained as research collaborators from MSU-Lanao del Norte Agricultural College, MSU-Maigo School of Arts and Trades, MSU Tawi-Tawi College of Technology and Oceonagraphy, USTP-Panaon, Camiguin State College, and MSUN Foundation for Science and Technology Devt., Inc. gathered last December 2, 2019 at the MSU-Naawan Conference Room for the signing of the Collaborative Research Agreement for the NICER Sea Cucumber R&D Center.

Seeding and Turnover of Sandfish Juveniles in Camiguin

Last February 19, 2020, Seeding and Turnover Ceremony of Sandfish Holothuria scabra juveniles for grow-out to Benoni,Mahinog, Camiguin was held. Participated by the local officials of the Municipality of Mahinog, and Barangay Benoni, together with BFARPFO and CPSC.

They have also witnessed the release of more than 2,000 juveniles in the sanctuary, and another 2,000 inside Taguines Lagoon. MSU-Naawan thru the NICER Sea Cucumber R&D Center funded by DOSTPCAARRD released a total of 6,000 sandfish juveniles (4-15g) to 6 beneficiaries for growing in sea pens.