It’s that time of year again for the sea cucumber, that bottom-dwelling, tubular creature sought after by a select group of dive fishers throughout Southeast Alaska, the processors who buy them and a growing number of consumers.
The first week of the season saw prices averaging about $3.50 per pound for the Echinoderms, according to official numbers. The second week had some processors paying $4.50 a pound, according to early reports. It’s a sign that pay levels for the niche fishery will return to previous years, rather than a repeat of the 2022-23 season.
The average price last season was $3.17 a pound for the sea cukes — down from $6 a pound during the 2021 season, an all-time high, according to a chart provided by the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, which goes back to 1986-1987.
The catch was steady last year, but the market dropped year over year due to too much remaining supply. The season begins the first Monday in October — Oct. 2 this year — and ends March 31 unless guideline harvest levels (GHLs) are met sooner.
In 2022 a total of 1.82 million pounds was harvested, compared to 1.87 million the year earlier, said Whitney Crittenden, assistant area management biologist for ADFG in Ketchikan. The amount earned by divers fell to a combined $5.7 million from $11.2 million the year before.
On an individual basis, divers saw seasonal earnings fall from $67,132 to $35,772 year over year, according to ADFG numbers.
The going price of a permit is $50,000, but can be higher. It’s a sum that can be paid off in one good season, subject to the whims of both nature and the market.
“It’s a very valuable fishery,” said Scott Forbes, Juneau area manager for the division of commercial fisheries for ADFG. It’s also highly regulated, based on a rotation of locations, limits on catch and time allowed for fishing.
Being a successful sea cucumber diver takes skill and physical strength. Divers have just 11 hours each week over the course of Monday and Tuesday to pick up the maximum 2,000 pounds. That time usually shortens as the season progresses, Forbes said.
“When areas get close to meeting their GHL, managers will truncate that time,” he said. In other cases, locations will be closed.
Usually the divers swim along the bottom collecting the sea cucumbers and placing them in mesh bags. The bags are then attached to buoys, which are picked up by tenders.
Allen Longwell, 34, started as a deckhand five years ago and decided after two seasons to get his own permit. That was in 2021 and he spent that season working with a partner on a tender vessel. The following year he purchased a boat and went out on his own with a deckhand.
The ability to work into it over time, spreading out costs, is one reason he likes the sea cucumber fishery. That isn’t possible with other fisheries that have much larger upfront costs, more equipment and require bait.
Longwell said he hasn’t seen too many other cuke divers out fishing in the first two weeks, although they see each other coming and going, he said. He’s been working in waters near Juneau.
“I was disappointed with the $3.50 price,” said Longwell. “It definitely gave me hope when I heard the price jumped a dollar this week.”
Dried sea cucumbers have long been popular in Asia, particularly China, which drives the market. High in protein and antioxidants with plenty of vitamins and minerals, its healthy characteristics have helped to widen its appeal in Europe and North America.
The creatures are a reddish-brown with dozens of tiny horns over its soft, slimy body. They can grow to 20 inches long and a girth of two inches, although it’s usually harvested at much shorter lengths.
The fishery dates back to 1983. That’s when the state granted an experimental harvest permit, which is allowed for fisheries not currently established, Crittenden said. It “ramped up quickly” from there, jumping from seven divers in 1986-87 to 57 in 1988-89 and then to 205 in 1989-90. More than two million pounds were harvested that year.
Many of the regulations in place today, like the 2,000-pound trip limit, came about at the 1994 Board of Fish meeting, she said.
The fishery went to limited entry in 1996, which was open to divers who had previously participated. There were 471 divers at that time and two types of permits — transferable and non-transferable. “The non-transferable permits can not be sold and transferred so when that individual is done the permit no longer exists.”
The fishery is only open to divers with sea cucumber permits. There are 228 active permits, 194 permits of which were renewed for this year.
So far, as expected
Crittenden said the catch numbers for the first week were “right on track for what we expected,” she said.
In all, 209,989 pounds of sea cucumbers were harvested by 153 divers during opening week for Southeast. That compares to 243,000 pounds brought in by 144 divers last year, Crittenden said.
Forbes stressed that it isn’t an apples-to-apples comparison. Because of rotations, divers are fishing in different territories this year than last.
Juneau’s portion of the overall Southeast total is relatively small due to where sea cucumbers populate, Forbes said. The greatest abundance of the Echinoderms is on the south end, around Ketchikan, then Petersburg and fewer moving north.
The fishing areas managed by the Juneau office include Icy Strait, Northern Chatham Strait — which combines with the lower Lynn Canal — and Auke Bay/Stephens Passage. Longwell said he was fishing near Stephens Passage.
In terms of the waters managed by the Juneau office, about 20,000 pounds of sea cucumbers were captured by 15 divers during the first week of last season. Forbes said the numbers were higher the first week of this season, with 18 divers. He declined to provide a total, however, citing confidentiality rules where there are fewer than three processors.
The relative stability of the sea cucumbers fishery, at least in Alaska, indicates the management is working, but there are numerous variables. Humans are not the sea cucumbers only predators since crabs, fish and especially sea otters find them delectable.
“There are some areas that are closed down completely, or reduced drastically, due to sea otters, Forbes said.
The sunflower starfish, sometimes admired for its shapely beauty, is known to feast mightily on its fellow Echinoderm. “We did see a surge in cucumbers when the Pycnidia died off,” said Forbes, using the scientific name for the starfish species hit with the “pandemic wasting disease,” between 2013 and 2017.
Which isn’t to say that the sea cucumber is without survival traits. It gathers food with 20 retractable tentacles in its mouth, according to the ADFG reference page. And “when threatened, it can expel all its stomach contents through its anus until its next feed.”
Longwell said sea cucumbers are large when submerged, but shrink when “popped,” which releases the water. “That’s the depressing thing about them, compared to other fisheries. They might be four or five pounds when I pick them up, but they end up being more like one-quarter to one-third of a pound” when they get dropped off with a processor,” he said.
“A hundred-pound halibut probably only loses about five to ten pounds,” he said.
Longwell is sticking with sea cucumbers for now. “It’s a comfort thing. It’s really nice being in the water,” he said. Unlike most cuke divers, who wear dry suits, he sticks with a wet suit. “It gets cold, and as the season goes on, it gets colder and colder.”
Thus far Longwell has ended his season in December. That’s the other reason he likes the fishery — time to travel. Last winter he spent time in Eastern Europe and in Asia. He’s still sorting out what he’ll do this winter.
• Contact Meredith Jordan at email@example.com or (907) 615-3190.