Sea Cucumbers as Food

Sea cucumbers are weird. They belong to the same phylum of animals as starfish, sea urchins, and sand dollars. They have a leathery body, and are shaped like a cucumber (hence the name). They hang out on seafloors worldwide, so of course they’re eaten worldwide, and some species are used medicinally.

Because they’re consumed world-wide, they’re referred to as many things. Bêche-de-mer or sea-spade (France), trepang (Indonesian), namako (Japanese), and balatan or gamat are all one in the same: sea cucumber. They’re considered a delicacy in East and Southeast Asia. And they’re packed full of protein.

Trepang is the most common term — so a fisher of sea cucumber is a trepanger. Fishing sea cucumbers is called trepanging. Life isn’t hard for a trepanger compared to a fisher of fish. You grab the things with your hand or a spear or a scoop. Then you dehydrate them. (Chefs must later rehydrate them by soaking them.)

As a food, the dishes are … slippery. They’re often accompanied in recipes involving winter melon, shiitake mushroom, and chinese cabbage, and served as soups and stews. Fried sea cucumber (think calamary) is common too. Sea Cucumbers are known for absorbing the flavours of whatever they’re cooked with.

Are Sea Cucumbers Worth Forming a Fishery Around Here?

They’re a 60 Million Dollar (US) industry in Southeast Asia. While we don’t have the same species in our waters, we do have plenty of the orange-footed sea cucumber here, and chefs daring enough to maybe use them. So why not fund a fishery here — for both local consumption and export dollars?

Well, it’s happening. The government just gave Cape Broyle Sea Products Ltd.$30,157 to optimize sea cucumber processing. The money is coming from the Fisheries Technology and New Opportunities Program, to help them optimize the long-term viability of a sea cucumber operation on Newfoundland’s southern shore.

As Vaughn Granter, Minister of Fisheries and Aquaculture, says, “Our seafood industry is valued at approximately $1 billion per year, and investments we make in improving processing operations for emerging species, such as sea cucumber, help to optimize return on investment for processors.”

This funding will allow the company to hire consultants to analyze current technologies and processes, conduct market analysis, and investigate alternative sea cucumber processing methods, and generally determine ways  of streamlining operations.

The species we have, the orange-footed sea cucumber (Cucumaria frondosa), isn’t the same kind as the ones consumed so readily in Asian and Australian food markets, but support for investigating the viability of a sea cucumber fishery here remains strong.

Keith Hutchings, Minister of Municipal and Intergovernmental Affairs, says sea cukes “hold tremendous opportunity for our seafood industry on both the harvesting and processing sides. This funding will help [them] improve their operations and productivity and help them to better identify and meet the demands of the market.”

Sea Cucumbers as Medicine

In addition to their potential in food markets, sea cucumbers are sold into the pharmaceutical industry as well. They’re thought to be cancer preventers, on account of their high levels of triterpene glycosides (which fight tumour growth), and philinopside E, which inhibits the formation of blood vessels that supply nutrients to tumors.

Other medicinal uses of sea cucumbers worldwide include tapping into their anti-coagulant, anti-inflammatory, and wound healing capabilities. They’re thought to ease joint pain, for example, and improve gum disease.