STRANGE BLACK BLOBS IN PACIFIC LAGOONS – BECHE-DE-MER -- A LUCRATIVE ASIAN

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DELICACY

By Michael Field

AUCKLAND, New Zealand (December 4, 2001 – Agence France-Presse)---To Asians they’re delicious and sexually arousing, to fishermen they’re lucrative but to the casual swimmer in the average Pacific lagoon they look like, well, unprocessed sewage -- black, the right shape and just sitting there.

But Asian taste buds are raising questions about the conservation of what is variously known as beche-de-mer, sea cucumber or in Chinese hai-shen (sea ginseng), of the family holothuria.

With a world trade of approximately 80,000 tons a year, at around US$ 20 a kilogram (2.2 pounds) beche-de-mer is lucrative. The main markets are Hong Kong, Singapore and Taiwan.

On Friday Papua New Guinea’s National Fisheries Authority raided an industrial center in the capital of Port Moresby and confiscated 2,970 kilograms (6,534 pounds) of illegally bought beche-de-mer.

Fisheries official Lamiller Pawut said PNG had a ban on fishing and trading in beche-de-mer but locals were being used to buy beche-de-mer and shark fins by some Asians who were the financiers.

Illegal beche-de-mer trading also hit the Galapagos Islands, made famous by evolution’s Charles Darwin.

Ecuador’s El Comercio newspaper reported a case of 500 beche-de-mer being confiscated at the airport on Isabela Island just as it was being loaded on an air force plane.

The Galapagos beche-de-mer fishery was closed in 1995 but illegal trading continues.

Beche-de-mer suffers the fate of other odd creatures of the world; the Chinese regard it as something of an aphrodisiac.

In Fiji beche-de-mer trading is legal and worth around US$ 14 million a year, but with dangerous diving practices used many fishing for the delicacy suffer the bends or die.

Tonga and the Cook Islands have diving bans although a previous Tongan Minister of Police, the late noble ‘Aka’uola, had prisoners collecting beche-de-mer. Where the proceeds went was a matter of conjecture.

Pacific Islanders, like so many others, are deterred from eating it by its look and unpleasant habits. When under threat beche-de-mer squirt out all their intestines. For trivia fans this is known as "autoevisceration". They grow a new set but it’s a bit like eating sausages -- best not to know how they are made.

The unendearing creature was, with sandalwood, one of the attractions for European traders in the late 17th and 18th Century as they pushed into the Pacific. They knew there was a market for them in China, but did not know how to dry them, nor did the islanders.

The technology came in the form of "Manilamen", Filipinos who used a technique similar to that of drying tobacco. Hundreds of people were used to gather beche-de-mer, and a lot of wood was used in drying fires. The trade peaked between 1822 and 1850, creating socially and logistically complex relationships.

Beche-de-mer generally died out in the South Pacific because of excessive harvesting -- just as it has done in Asian waters.

As one recent scientific paper, published by the South Pacific Community, notes, "very little is known concerning recruitment, growth and mortality" of them. It adds that they appear "slow-growing and very vulnerable and constitute therefore fragile stocks."

There is something like 1,200 species. Commercially, the main species is Holothuria nobilis or the black teatfish, extensively fished in the Torres Strait between Australia and PNG.

Its ultimate fate sounds like a particularly acquired taste.

In Japan and Korea the gutted body wall of beche-de-mer is consumed raw or pickled, and a specialized range of products are produced from the gonad, respiratory trees and viscera. Konowata, the fermented or pickled guts or intestines, and Kuchiko, the prepared and dried sea cucumber gonads, are considered a delicacy.

Konowata is used in Japan as nibbles with drinks and is sold in small glass jars.

Some believe its distinctly phallic appearance accounts for its reputation as an aphrodisiac. In a seeming contradiction, it is also reputedly good for lowering blood pressure. It is also said to be good for alleviating arthritis.

Those who eat it say its tasteless (so why bother with all the preparation, a cynic might ask) but soaks up the flavors of anything it is cooked with. In China it’s used in soups and stir-fries mostly, although it is made into all kinds of powders, drinks and medications.

Michael Field New Zealand/South Pacific Correspondent Agence France-Presse E-mail: afp.nz@clear.net.nz  Phone: (64 21) 688438 Fax: (64 21) 694035 Website: http://www.afp.com/english/  Website: http://www.michaelfield.org 

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