But fishermen getting short-changed

The fishing season for sea cucumbers opened on Saturday, February 15, but local fishermen harvesting this valuable marine resource are not getting a fair share of the profits from their hard work.

According to statistics provided by Fisheries Officer Adriel Castaneda, the 69 fishermen issued licenses last year harvested a total of 432,920 pounds of wet sea cucumbers in 2013, for which they were paid between $3.00 to $4.50 per pound.

Doing the math, this shows that the fishermen earned at the most $1,948,140 from their product, if they got the best local price.

Castaneda had the numbers because he was tasked with assessing the total population of sea cucumber to determine the amount that could be sustainably harvested without depleting this resource.

This year's quota has been set at 400,000 lbs.

Castaneda explained the season will remain open up until June 30, but, if the quota is filled early, it may be closed before the date.

The opening of this year's sea cucumber harvest was delayed until this assessment was completed and it was only this Monday, February 10, that the Fisheries Department notified fishermen to come in to apply to renew their licenses.

Castaneda also reported that the local exporters, who buy the wet cucumbers and process it to be ready for shipping, had exported 129,876lbs of dried sea cucumbers in 2013.

Fisheries officer James Azueta explained that the exporters needed to salt and dry the cucumbers before export, and that the sea cucumbers would lose about 70 percent of their weight, through the processing. Azueta told Reporter that exporters typically get about US$25.00 per pound. Again doing the math, that means exporters earned about US$3,246,900 or Bz$6,493,800. Compare that to the $1.9 million paid to the fishermen!

Castaneda said part of the reason the fishermen are paid so low is that they are negotiating as individuals when they sell their product to the exporter, who has the capital to buy and set up the processing the equipment, the refrigerated warehouse where the product must be stored until it can be shipped, and then pay the cost of air freight, since the product must be shipped by air.

He said the fishermen would need to form themselves into an association or a cooperative to put them in a better bargaining position to set a better price, or even process the product themselves and eliminate the middleman. But fishermen's past experience of cooperative ventures would make this difficult.

Most Belizeans don't eat sea cucumbers, and local fishermen only learnt of the demand for this delicacy from local Chinese residents who offered to buy any they might bring ashore.

Sea cucumbers are prized as a delicacy in many parts of Asia and China, as they are reputed to have medicinal properties. The dried product fetched a premium price of as much as US$150 per pound on international markets; this is a lot more than the price of US$25.00 quoted to Azueta.

Fishermen might do well to evaluate their price, as scientific researchers published a study last October, showing that sea cucumber extract kills up to 95 percent of breast cancer cells, 90 percent of melanoma cells, 95 percent of liver cancer cells and 88 percent of lung cancer cells in vitro.

They had identified a key compound known as frondoside A, responsible for sea cucumber's anti-cancer properties.

The Reporter