Listening to science is our best way forward in managing our sea cucumber fishery

Conservation Society of Pohnpei
Sea cucumbers are a quiet sea invertebrate that have never made a lot of news in the past in Pohnpei, but that doesn’t mean that we have been ignoring them. Since 2012, Dr. Peter Houk who heads up the University of Guam’s Marine Laboratory has been working with the Conservation Society of Pohnpei and the Pohnpei State Office of Fisheries and Aquaculture on a long term coral reef monitoring program. This program conducted surveys at 21 sites on the shallow reef slopes around Pohnpei where many species of sea cucumber live. The main goal of the program was to understand how the near shore fisheries and corals respond to human stressors and management programs, such as Marine Protected Areas, and help to balance the social, economic, and ecosystem needs of fisheries. So, it made sense that with the recent announcement of a sea cucumber harvest that we would ask Dr. Houk to return to Pohnpei and do a rapid assessment of the current population levels of sea cucumbers and compare them to the levels in 2012 to see if we have a sufficient supply of sea cucumbers to harvest.

fisheries

The plan devised by the state allows for a whooping 67.5 metric tons of sea cucumbers to harvest. (That’s 135,000 pounds!).
In early May the team finished collecting another round of data to help put sea cucumber population trends into perspective. The data showed clearly that sea cucumbers have declined since 2012 at almost all of the sites where sea cucumbers have been observed, including inside the no-take marine protected areas. The team of Dr. Houk and members from CSP and OFA had informal conversations with numerous individuals (fishermen, community leaders and fisheries workers) and identified two events that may have contributed to this decline. In his report after the rapid assessment was done, Dr. Houk noted that there was a harvesting operation in 2013 that collected and dried sea cucumbers but never shipped them out because it was purportedly illegal. His report states that the declines in sea cucumbers between 2012 and 2014 around the island correspond with this timeframe. Secondly, his summary noted that there have been reports from communities that “unusually heavy rain events and/or extreme low tides with the ongoing El Nino have led to sea cucumber die-off events in some localities last year”. His summary is that sea cucumber populations have declined significantly at the 21 sites monitored since 2012 and are currently at low levels. His report confirms what science has documented, “that sea cucumbers grow much slower than fishes, and while fish populations can start to recover within two years of successful management, sea cucumbers may take a minimum of 5 to 10 years.”
The data in his report showed that harvesting at the present time is not recommended because of the low numbers of large species, and no substantial recovery of smaller species since their populations declined in 2013 (see graph below). According to Dr. Houk, the state should look to do a full survey of the shallow reef habitats that were not included in their program, and do a synthesis of all available past data on sea cucumber populations. The end conclusion is that harvesting low populations now would jeopardize the ecological functions that sea cucumbers provide to Pohnpei reefs. For the people in Pohnpei, there is a lot of talk about the harvest of sea cucumbers. Who should we listen to? Listening to science would seem to be our best way forward in managing our sea cucumber fishery.