Mission Markets is proud to have Roberts and Rose Mariculture Corp. as a qualified issuer member. We sat down to ask Tom Roberts and Robert Rose a few questions about the mariculture industry and markets and how sustainable farming of sea cucumbers can help restore fragile ecosystems. To learn more, please register at missionmarkets.com.
Q) What is Mariculture? What inspired you to enter this market and what are some of your past accomplishments?
A) Mariculture (mari =sea in Latin) is the science or art of sea farming of plants and animals. The word is used interchangeably with aquaculture, which includes both marine and sea farming or cultivation.
Inspiration was an evolution over time for both Thomas Roberts and Robert Rose, from sport/recreational diving youths to either a commercial marine archeologist/pearl farmer/business entrepreneur (T Roberts) or a qualified marine biologist/commercial aquaculturist (R Rose, PhD). Independently, Tom through observations and working underwater on pearl farms and Bob’s research/aquaculture on the reproductive ecology/life cycles of pearl oysters and sea cucumbers discovered both species share the same marine habitat and thrive together in open-sea, polyculture systems.
Fourteen years ago both gentlemen met in northern Palawan Province, Philippines to establish a pearl farm. While conducting a survey, they realized that Busuanga Island and surrounding archipelago were teeming with sea cucumber species of which most were commercially lucrative and easy to propagate using pearl oyster-abalone hatchery/nursery techniques. Most importantly, the grow-out techniques developed in Indonesia and Australia by Bob and by two colleagues on the management team (Jeff Abel and Beni Giraspy), were ideally suited for the area.
Both proponents were aware through colleagues from the seafood industry and scientific literature that an ever-increasing global demand for sea cucumber was due to a rapidly growing human population in combination with a plethora of collapsing regional fisheries. Readily available buyers in close proximity to major markets across the South China Sea, made the practicality of entering market with aquacultured produce cost-effective; hence, Roberts and Rose partnership commenced.
Q) What is a sea cucumber and how does this product fit your expertise?
A) Sea cucumbers are marine invertebrates belonging to a large diverse, primitive marine group or phylum called Echinodermata that inhabit the ocean’s shallow-to-deep seafloor sediments. There are over 1,100 species of sea cucumbers belonging to the class Holothuroidea (Greek meaning “holos”: whole and “thurios”: rushing), which are part of a diverse marine phylum or group of marine organisms called Echinodermata (Greek meaning spiny skinned). These worm-like animals are related to sea urchins, sea stars and brittle stars but with their skeletons reduced to microscopic ossicles or calcareous spicules embedded in a collagen-protein body. Sea cucumbers can be long and thin (up to five meters) like a snake or short, thick oval-shaped (20-40cm or one foot+) like a loaf of bread. They are mostly omnivorous, detrital feeders that burrow and graze on the seafloor.
Our expertise rests in understanding sea cucumber ecology (who eats whom), developmental biology (life cycle) and their husbandry. We have the biotechniques to routinely fatten broodstock to spawning healthy eggs, rear large quantities of larvae and juveniles, and sea ranch (growout) the sub-adults to a harvestable size cost-effectively and renewably. Equally, important we have developed and/or experience with the hygienic biotechnology required to produce premium seafood.
Q) Please give us a broad overview of the sea cucumber market.
A) Sea cucumbers (or trepang as commonly referred to in the Indo-Pacific Region) have been collected as food from the South Asia and Indian subcontinent for more than a thousand years and traded with the Chinese. The sea cucumber fishery is based on 52 species found in sub-tropical and tropical waters that belong to the Holothuroidae and Stichopodidae families. They are collected for meat, which when processed and dried is traded as beche-de-mer.
The three major, contemporary beche-de-mer trade markets today are Hong Kong SAR (China), Singapore, and Taiwan; these centers also involved in a well-established global network that re-exports sea cucumber products (eg, to Japan and Korea). The majority of trade figures originate from these centers.
FAO catch and trade statistics available April 2011, indicate the two most productive sea cucumber regions are Asia and the Pacific with and estimated combined harvestable catches ranging from 20,000 to 40,000 tonne per year.
The price per unit of dried meat varies according to quality and size of the product. The price of dried meat for two species to be farmed at the Philippine farm for their nutraceutical/pharmaceutical properties ranges between $80 and $95 per kilogram (the raw powder product per kg can be $300 plus depending on the purity). The price of dried meat for the two food species ranges between $130 and $280 per kilogram.
Q) Why are current harvesting practices so destructive?
A) Simply, the rate of fishing large parent stock has become too high or intense for most populations to recover quickly or between seasons. Furthermore, with the advent of SCUBA/hookah diving and dredging practices, stable, untouched-deepwater populations just outside the fishery region are unable to naturally restock the depleted shallower populations with sufficient levels of newly recruited juveniles.
Natural populations of some commercial species take more than 10 plus years to recover. Many traditional fisheries are located in regions where industry operates without a management policy with size-limit restrictions. Eventually removal of enough mature individuals occurs and the fishery collapses as reproduction fails to create enough individuals to replace each pair of parent stock.
Q) Why is it important to restore the native sea cucumber population?
A) Sea cucumbers provide an important beneficial function within the marine ecosystem by turning over ‘locked-up’ sediment nutrients and releasing them to primary producers, such as phytoplankton, seaweeds and sea grasses. These plants then provide herbivorous and omnivorous organisms with sustenance, which in turn, feed higher trophic levels, such as tuna, squid and shark. Thus, the role of sea cucumbers is analogous to that of the terrestrial earthworm by ‘underwriting’ the rich biodiversity of the marine world.
Q) Are sustainably harvested sea cucumbers more economical than the traditional variety?
A) Yes, because the product is more consistent in body size, weight and nutrient content as compared to traditional wild product. There are several reasons for this: 1/ the nutrient profile and meat quality of large numbers of the individuals can be controlled by simply manipulating the stocking density, and length, place and time of cultivation; 2/ the selectively breeding from parent stock to produce large numbers of progeny that are disease resistant, healthy/robust, fast growing and long surviving; and 3/ deliberately sea farming/ranching in biodiverse marine environment which are indicative of a balanced, fertile ecosystem that is stable and unaffected by sustainable farming techniques.
Unlike the aquaculture of sea cucumbers on a renewable basis, many of the wild varieties that are traditionally harvested are often highly inconsistent in size, quantity and quality. This is often because many of the areas fished are suboptimal or damaged from overfishing, sedimentation, coastal farming, urban pollution or natural perturbations that have adversely impacted on the cucumbers collected.
Q) How is the meat used as a medical product and what does this market look like?
A) The nutritional profile of sea cucumbers makes it an ideal tonic and health food. The meat and entrails are high in essential amino acid proteins, vitamins, trace elements, and in fatty acids. Thus, the demand for sea cucumber products in traditional Chinese medicine continues to remain strong. They are not only valued for their antifungal and antibacterial properties but also as an aphrodisiac and cure for osteoarthritis, some lung cancers, whooping cough, gastric ulcers and high blood pressure.
Tissues of the body wall are composed of insoluble collagen (a gelatinous substance found in the meat) similar to soft-shell turtle and deer-horn collagen making it suitable for treating anaemia and as a nutrient supplement for haematogenesis. With high levels in two essential amino acids (lysine and arginine) and one non-essential (tryptophan), makes the gelatin in sea cucumber more valuable than other gelatins.
Pharmaceutical companies recognize the importance of two mucopolysaccharides, holothurian glucosaminoglycan (HG) and fucan (HF), found in the body wall tissues as compounds that can be used in drugs to inhibit some cancers, such as, lung and galactophore cancers, enhance the immune system and reduce blood clotting. Since the 1990s, sea cucumbers have been used as a source of chondroitin sulphate (‘sea chondroitin’) to produce anti-inflammatory drugs for osteoarthritis, rheumatoid arthritis and ankylosing spondylitis. Collagen is being used to help produce artificial skin. In Japan, there is a patent for sea cucumber chondroitin sulphate in HIV therapy.
Western medical industry has begun to appreciate through scientific verification that sea cucumbers belonging to the Holothuroidea class have an impressive profile of valuable nutrients and a number of unique pharmacological compounds with therapeutic properties and medicinal benefits. In recent decades, the medicinal properties of sea cucumbers have gained enormous popularity. Further, sea cucumbers by the nutraceutical industry as a valuable food source with physiological benefits for human health is becoming increasing apparent. In summary, given the predicted increase in size of the global middle class to reach approximately 5 billion people by 2030, the demand for sea-cucumber-derived medicines should remain buoyant.
Q) Why did you choose the Philippines? How do you incorporate local Filipino cultural values into your business practices?
A) The location of the project is ideal environmentally, logistically and socially. The eco-system in the Busuanga archipelago is a biodiverse community with large expanses of seagrass and seaweed, mangrove intertidal shores that are protected from rough seas. The meadows are natural, shallow water nurseries for sea cucumber juveniles which extend subtidally into gentle, sloping seafloors, littered with coral outcroppings to form large-basin channels with soft mud/sand sediments rich in interstitial flora and fauna that create natural paddocks for adult sea cucumbers.
Although the area is on the southern boundary of the cyclone/hurricane corridor for the Philippines, the monsoonal weather generated is not generally destructive, acting as a “nutrient pump” to pervasively replenish the marine environment with organic and inorganic particulates essential for primary plant production (that underpins a vibrant eco-system). The archipelago’s reefs are well preserved due to the custodial efforts of the tourist diving industry, pearling companies and local/federal government marine park reserves and no-take
The proximity to major markets of Hong Kong, Singapore and Taiwan is fortuitous. Locally the businesses surrounding the farm site are environmentally low-impact (eg tourism, pearl farming, village-scale farming, fishing and light industries).
The local ethnic groups are all peaceful predominantly Christian with Muslim and indigenous minorities. Villages nearest to the site have many families that use to work on Tom Roberts pearl farm and are experienced mariners keen to become involved in the venture. The project will blend seamlessly into the pre-existing, subsistent sea-cucumber trading activities of the area providing employment and business opportunities related to all marine seafoods produced in the area.
Q) Tell us about your partnership with Good Company.
A) The partnership with Good Company is unique and beneficial. Good Company is a mature sustainability consulting company with a specialty in measuring, managing and marketing impact benefits to the environment, local people and their economies. Good Company is one of the companies that set the standard for sustainability metrics and measurement.
We are fortunate to be working with Good Company because they believe in the value of our mariculture business. They recognize the challenges of companies like ours who are seeking investment capital. We have formed a relationship where Good Company principals have received options in RRH in exchange for conducting our Certification and developing our IRIS indicators for a five-year period.
Q)How does that align with your overall business strategy?
A) Perfectly, as it conforms to our mission statement, business plan and ethics.
Q)What sort of legacy do you hope to foster through this venture?
A) The venture illustrates that ethical and sustainable aquaculture profitably produces premium seafoods, and important medicines and health foods for future mankind without having to “mine” the sea and exhaust all its treasures.
Q)Any closing thoughts?
A) Investors interested in the mariculture industry must appreciate a number of concepts:
1. The farming/propagation/marketing of seafood and medicinal products are and will be renewable, and underpinned on evidence-based science and biotechnology.
2. All production plans and targets are found on ecological principles and established reproduction models for each organism farmed.
3. Our research motto is to innovate, adapt and adopt.
4. Production is not linear but geometric.
5. Expansion is measured and step-continuous.
6. Profits/ecological sustainability/cultural satisfaction must be balanced, and achieved honestly and fairly.
7. “80/20” principle is modified to imply: to produce a renewable product, 80% of the effort must emanate from nature with only 20% derived from human blood, sweat and tears.