(Photo: Arctica Food)
An unknown, but highly prized animal in China, sea cucumber represents a new economic potential for the Gaspé Peninsula. If we take care of it …
Étienne Couture has an extraordinary job: he is a cucumber fisherman. In summer, this scuba diver spends four hours a day at the bottom of the very cold waters of the north shore in the Gaspé, where he fills huge bags of Cucumaria frondosa, the sea cucumber found in the Atlantic. North, an echinoderm like the starfish.
“Real physical work,” exclaims this young thirties. Sometimes there is a lot of current. ”
Divers, self-employed paid by weight, go up to 18 m deep and collect 2,500 to 5,000 pounds of sea cucumbers (another name for the animal) per day.
To work longer and not to make decompression stops, they breathe nitrox, an air enriched with oxygen. A possible failure of their equipment represents their worst nightmare, just like the many ropes that connect them to the boat: “There are four of us at the bottom of the water, and it happens to us all the time to get tangled in the ropes …”
Since we started fishing for sea cucumber in Quebec in 2008, the majority of the catch has been taken by dredge, that is to say by pulling a sled at the bottom of the water. 2019 will be the third year that scuba diving, commonly used for sea urchins, is tested for cucumber.
(Photo: Rénald Belley. Sea cucumber captures plankton and suspended matter using tentacles.)
The unknown from the bottom of the sea
Hanging on the rocks at the bottom of the gulf, the sea cucumber has long led a peaceful life far from prying eyes: we don’t even know how many years it lives. Scientists at the Maurice Lamontagne Institute (IML) of Fisheries and Oceans Canada in Mont-Joli have only determined that in Quebec, it reproduces in June.
This suspensivore captures plankton and suspended matter using tentacles which it then brings to its mouth. With the same phylum (echinoderms) as the starfish, it is not aesthetic, rather resembling a rugby ball. When it wants to move, it swells with water to get carried away by the current.
Everyone would continue to make fun of this strange animal if it weren’t a highly prized dish in China, where it sells for $ 200 to $ 400 a pound. This superfood rich in omega-3, also considered an aphrodisiac, is used in traditional Chinese medicine. An appetite that has caused a worldwide rush for this resource: in the South Pacific island states, stocks have plummeted. Poaching has been reported from New Caledonia to Madagascar.
A Brossard company, Arctica Food, thinks it can grab a market of 40 million by exporting that of the St. Lawrence, a non-thorny and rather plump species. It is sold dried and whole: nerves, muscles, skin, everything is there.
“This is a product that leaves no one indifferent,” says vice president Lory Wang: “we like it or we don’t like it.” Its flavor is very light, and it takes the taste of the foods with which it is cooked. ”
Everything is in the texture: “We go from soft to crisp, with even a little cartilage, then we go back into the soft. ”
Fears to dispel
In Quebec, fishing still has exploratory status, but the biomass of sea cucumber is poorly understood: quotas are calculated following a study conducted in 2005, several years before the first catches.
A scientific expedition led by IML biologist Rénald Belley in the fall of 2018 on the banks of the Gaspé Peninsula will finally help remedy this situation. It must also decide the question of the impact of the dredge on the seabed.
In 2017, fishermen in the Gaspé hypothesized that it was disrupting lobster habitat. If his study is not yet published, Mr. Belley can already allay these fears thanks to the photos and videos he took: “On sites where fishing was stopped 4 to 6 years ago , there appears to be a restoration of habitat and all benthic communities. ”
Many precautions are already taken, however: in the Gaspé, fishing opens in mid-July and dredging can only be done in a strip located between 32 and 42 m deep. The lobsters are then closer to the coast, as they seek warmer waters in summer in order to moult.
(Photo: Rénald Belley. In Quebec, fishing still has exploratory status, but the biomass of sea cucumber is poorly understood.)
(The original french report is here: LE DEVOIR )