Tropical sea cucumber, called béche-de-mer (BDM) in its dried form, is a luxury seafood and health food, with its main market in southern China and smaller markets in Singapore, Malaysia and other countries. Regional markets for BDM have existed for centuries, and they have expanded greatly since the 1980s with growing incomes in China. Sea cucumbers are relatively easy to harvest and process, even in remote coastal and island locations in Papua New Guinea (PNG). Once dried, BDM is shelf stable and high value relative to its size and weight, so it is an ideal cash-earning commodity for communities where cash-earning opportunities are extremely limited. Increasing prices and an influx of buyers entering the trade seeking BDM led to overfishing in PNG in the 2000s. In 2009 the government instituted a moratorium on the fishery, banning exports, and the PNG National Fisheries Authority (NFA) closed the fishery. Since then the NFA has revised the sea cucumber fishery Management Plan and conducted stock assessments in preparation for re-opening the fishery in 2017.
The sea cucumber fishery in PNG was extensive; it was conducted in most coastal and island locations around the country and involved more than 22 species of sea cucumber from very high value to very low value. It was a small-scale informal fishery with multiple landing points, conducted mostly from shore, canoe or dinghy. Women, men and children fished close to shore and gleaned in shallow areas. Young men dominated the fishing conducted further from shore or which involved deep diving. Some level of processing was done by fishers – minimal processing if the BDM could be sold quickly, full drying if fishers had to wait some weeks to be able to sell their product. Exporters were based in provincial capitals or Port Moresby and bought through buyers who travelled out to fishing areas or fishers who brought product to them to sell direct. There was a handful of exporters in each maritime provincial capital and more in Port Moresby, which meant the export node of the supply chain was much more consolidated than the fishing node.
In the early years BDM was exported, mainly via Singapore as an entrêpot to other regional markets. In later years Hong Kong replaced Singapore as the main entrêpot. Most of the product was bound for new markets in mainland China, with some high value product retained for more established high end markets in Hong Kong or Singapore. Hong Kong, as a luxury seafood hub for the Chinese market, is a free port with no tariffs, while there are tariffs as high as 30 percent (depending on China’s trade relations with the export country) for import into China. So although the trade from Hong Kong into China is extensive, it is a form of ‘grey trade’ (that is, illegal). The BDM trade, from buying from villagers through export to import and retail was highly dependent on relationships. Rather than arms-length, contract-bound market arrangements, trading was almost entirely based on relationships and trust, with prices varying depending on the relationships between sellers and buyers. There were also many examples of malfeasance and relationships gone sour.
There are various social systems that affect the operation of the BDM trade, and therefore its governance. From 2001 the PNG government had in place a Management Plan for BDM that centred on the control of exports via licensing and the clearing of export shipments. The paperwork around export shipments was the main source of data on the fishery, and it was used for a Total Allowable Catch (TAC) and closed season system for managing the fishery. Each PNG province had a TAC, and when it was reached the fishery was closed for the year. The TACs had not been set scientifically because Maximum Sustained Yield (MSY) had not been calculated for all provinces. Where stock assessments had been done these were used. Where there had been no stock assessment the historical catch record was used to estimate the total harvestable amount for each province, of which 70 percent was set as the TAC. It is possible the TACs were not set at the right levels, but in any case the TACs were routinely exceeded, and this seems a key reason for the failure of the first Management Plan to prevent overfishing. There were also illegal exports of BDM of unknown quantities, with some level of trading continuing during the moratorium. NFA stock assessments carried out since 2009 show varying levels of recovery for different species and locations.
The new Management Plan drafted for when the fishery reopens is based on the same management tools of TACs and closed seasons with size limits. Various measures have been introduced to strengthen these, including improved reporting of sales as data for monitoring the TACs and points-based export license criteria to encourage good operators and ‘weed out’ bad ones. In addition, the new Management Plan includes greater scope for devolution of resource management functions to provincial and local levels. There is also a Communication and Education Strategy, which will be important in supporting the effectiveness of the new Plan. Community-based Resource Management (CBRM) is allowed for in the new Management Plan, although to date not much CBRM exists in PNG, and there are significant challenges for it to be effective in sustainably managing sea cucumber fisheries due to their high value. Another challenge for devolution is that the provinces have been less than proactive in taking up the role of improving fisheries management.
Regionally and internationally there are some potential measures that could influence governance of the fishery, including Pacific Islands governments sharing information on traders and the possibility of listing overfished species under the Convention on the International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES). Greater scrutiny of imports by the Chinese government is another potential influence. Market incentives for sustainability are not yet significant in the main Chinese markets, although at the high marketing end food safety and quality concerns could potentially be linked to ecological factors. There is potential for PNG product to be marketed as coming from ‘pristine’ South Pacific waters without the industrial or sewerage pollution found in many Asian source countries. PNG’s reputation in end markets for poor or unreliable quality BDM is a problem, which PNG’s fishery managers are considering as a factor to address in improving the sustainability of the industry.