But climate change is causing a rise in temperatures, taking a toll on our oceans. Warmer waters represent a real threat to seaweed production, inhibiting its growth and making it susceptible to bacteria. The seaweed these female farmers collect mostly for export is no longer flourishing.
The only option is to venture into the cooler, much deeper waters, but here the seaweed can be damaged by stronger currents and most of the farmers cannot swim. This is not the only obstacle: a drop in the global price of seaweed has left these farmers working six-hour days to earn just 1 000 Tanzanian shillings – or USD 0.44 – for the two kilograms they usually manage to collect.
In the face of these difficulties, FAO saw an opportunity to introduce a new livelihood and train women, already skilled in working in the ocean, to farm sea cucumbers.
Sea cucumbers: a lucrative delicacy
The Holothuria scabra species of sea cucumbers may not be pretty, but they are lucrative. Depending on quality, this grey filter feeder currently earns farmers up to USD 100 per kilogram once dried. They are in hot demand on the Asian market because with increasing pollution in East Asia’s shallow waters, local sea cucumbers are diminishing. Consequently, China is looking to import these delicacies.
Sea cucumbers are important in other ways too. Scientists have discovered that they contain bioactive compounds that can be used for medicinal purposes. In addition, sea cucumbers have also been central to research on how the gastrointestinal microbiome of sea creatures can promote intestinal cell regeneration and benefit the immune system. Microbiomes are made up of microbes including bacteria, viruses and fungi that play a key part in keeping the gut healthy.
These small creatures also have environmental benefits. If farmed sustainably, they boost biodiversity in the area, hoovering up dead and discarded matter from the sea floor and egesting it, a process that it vital to the continued health of seagrass meadows and coral reefs. This is hugely important for ecotourism.