Sandfish, Holothuria scabra, is a high value and heavily exploited species of tropical sea cucumber, traded primarily to China. Sandfish mariculture is regarded as a potentially economically attractive enterprise to meet market demand while rebuilding natural stocks through the release of hatchery-bred juveniles. Engaging small scale fishers in sandfish mariculture can potentially provide livelihood diversification opportunities in coastal villages. In rural Southeast Asia, sandfish mariculture and capture fisheries typically form only part of a broader livelihood portfolio that would include multiple income-generating activities, which are shifting and flexible according to seasonal and economic circumstances. Such forms of diversification are often seen as a hedge against vulnerability and against various forms of external shocks. Drawing on an ongoing program of research and development into sandfish mariculture in the Philippines, this study examines the role of sandfish within the broader livelihood portfolio of households in the coastal Philippines. Specifically, this study identifies the contributions and current status of sea cucumber capture fisheries and mariculture in the Philippines. The impacts and adaptation towards COVID-19 was also documented.
Sea cucumber capture production in the Philippines precipitously decreased from 4,023 tonnes in 1990 to 810 tonnes in 2020. Sea cucumber fishing is a highly seasonal activity due to the monsoon season in the Philippines. During peak season, traders transport up to ≥1,000 kg of dried sea cucumbers with an estimated value of PHP 888,759 monthly to buying stations in Manila. Fishers targeting mainly sea cucumbers recorded lower average monthly income than those involved in other sea cucumber related activities (Table 1). Highest average monthly income was recorded from those involved in sea cucumber processing-trading. Sea cucumber fisheries contribute between 28-65% to the household monthly income of people involved in sea cucumber fishery related activities during peak season. Beside regular fishers, the sea cucumber fishery provided employment opportunities for people displaced during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Compared to sea cucumber capture fishery, average income from sandfish mariculture was relatively low (Table 2). However, despite the relatively small income from sandfish mariculture, it is still meaningful and significant in supporting the primary income of the farmers.
The apparent increase in sandfish populations in the wild was attributed by the fishers to the sea cucumber ranch in their localities. These spillover effects were likely to have occurred by a combination of both regular dispersal of larvae from regular spawning events within the sea ranch, and from adult emigration. Results highlights the importance of effective enforcement of size limits to maximize both the ecological and economic benefits of sandfish mariculture. Additionally, results suggests that diversified livelihoods potentially provide opportunities to mitigate against systemic shocks such as the COVID-19 pandemic.