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‘Houdini’ sea cucumbers a potentially lucrative industry

‘Houdini’ sea cucumbers a potentially lucrative industry

They may not be the prettiest of sea creatures but University of Auckland researcher Leo Zamora says sea cucumbers are not only fascinating but a potential major export earner for New Zealand.

They may not be the prettiest of sea creatures but University of Auckland researcher Leo Zamora says sea cucumbers are not only fascinating but a potential major export earner for New Zealand.

Leo has been studying sea cucumbers for five years and graduates from the University of Auckland tomorrow with a PhD in Marine Science. His research contributes new knowledge about a species that is highly sought-after around the world, particularly in China.

But he has only tasted one once.

“My cooking skills are not the best so I just boiled one up, it was pretty flavourless and the texture was unusual,” Leo says. “But in Chinese cooking they are used dried and added to all kinds of dishes and they are supposed to just melt in your mouth. They are a delicacy in China and often served on special occasions like weddings.”

Sea cucumbers are “deposit feeders” which means they ingest sediment and its associated microorganisms including bacteria from the dead bodies and faeces of other animals from the sea floor. New Zealand has several native species, but only one is potentially suitable for farming.

But herding sea cucumbers is no easy task.

“They are the Houdinis of the marine world,” Leo says, “they can escape through just about anything, so sea ranching in cages is not that easy. Also the larvae flows into the water column and away, so to keep a population in one place you have to have successful hatchery techniques.”

Leo’s research found sea cucumbers grow faster in colder temperatures where they can grow from 30gms to a commercially-harvestable size of 100gms in 18 months provided they have enough food. Mussel farmers are particularly keen on the concept of farming sea cucumbers because there is plenty of food from the mussels overhead and sea cucumbers help clean up the sea floor.

“So you are growing two species for the price of one,” Leo says.

Top species of sea cucumbers sell for roughly US$1000 per kilogram dried (100kg of fresh sea cucumber equals 10 kg of dried). New Zealand’s species are thought to be worth around US$275 per kg.

Leo completed his PhD studies on a scholarship from his native Chile. He hopes to work in New Zealand for the next two years.


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