Alaska meets global demand for sea cucumbers

Sea cucumbers in a store in Chicago. (Photo by
Juan Carlos Martin / Flickr)

The sea cucumber fishery in Southeast opened for harvest in the beginning of October. It’s now half way through its season. And, much like salmon this year, it looks like the state’s sea cucumber harvest is also finding success on the global market.

Listen now

Out of all the divers in Southeast, most touch down in Ketchikan.

Bo Meredith, the Alaska Department of Fish and Game assistant area management biologist for commercial fisheries in Ketchikan, said about 160 divers recently made landings in Southeast. He said 100 of those were in Ketchikan.

Meredith said the other region where divers harvest sea cucumbers is the Kodiak Management Area. In Kodiak, fewer than 20 divers this year participated for a total guideline harvest level of 140,000 pounds.

“Southeast Alaska has this year 1.2 million pounds, but you’re talking about approaching the northern end of the geographic range for the red sea cucumber or California sea cucumbers, so your productivity is not gonna be as high, whereas Ketchikan is more in the prime zone of the geographic range for the sea cucumbers as you head south,” Meredith said.

Meredith said there are 18 different harvest areas in Southeast this year, each with its own GHL. Once an area reaches its limit, it closes and reopens three years later. He said sea cucumbers take three to four years to mature, so that helps avoid overfishing. And that could play into why Alaska-sourced sea cucumbers are doing so well worldwide.

Meredith said Alaska saw a change in the value of sea cucumbers about six years ago.

“And all of sudden the price went up from about $2 or $2.50 a pound to $4 or $5 a pound, and it’s been kinda steady at about $4 a pound, and this year it shot up to $5 to $5.50 a pound,” Meredith said.

Mike Erickson is the part owner of Alaska Glacier Seafoods, which processes sea cucumbers in Juneau. He believes poor management and overfishing in other countries could be why Alaska has risen in the ranks.

“The supply is not meeting the demand, hence the price starts going up,” Erickson said.

Erickson says, according to some of his buyers, Mexico used to be a big player in the global market.

“And they still are, but they don’t have the volume that they had a couple [or] three years ago,” Erickson said. “They have literally fished out some of their areas, so consequently they don’t have the supply that they had, and a lot of those cukes that were from Mexico were going to China.”

Erickson said Alaska Glacier Seafoods also sends many of its sea cucumbers to China.

“You have a skin and you have a meat, so basically you extract the meat out of the skin and then those two items kinda go to different markets,” Erickson said. “Like, the skin will basically head to Asia and the meat, even though we do sell some over into Hong Kong, we sell a fair amount of meat on the east coast here in the U.S., believe it or not.”

Erickson said he thinks sea cucumbers are doing so well partly because of Fish and Game’s management system. He also credits Alaska’s reputation for “pristine” waters and a high quality product.