FOR the people of the Solomon Islands, the sea cucumber is just a slug-looking creature that helps to keep their bays and lagoons clean of pollutants.
But in China, they are a delicacy essential for a range of traditional dishes – and they will pay top dollar for the finest quality.
In a country with few natural resources, selling sea cucumbers to the Chinese became comparatively big business for the Solomon Islands in the 1990s, and a source of income for villagers who would dive up to 20 metres to harvest them.
So, inevitably, they became over-fished and are subject to periodic bans of several years to help replenish their stocks.
With few other ways of generating economic activity, the government and private landowners gave logging companies access to virgin forests for hardwood that is then exported for processing. There is no replanting, no sustainable timber.
Hamley Anderson, who has worked at a salmon business at Rowella on the Tamar River for 16 years, was born and raised in the Solomon Islands.
Every time he travels back to see his family in his home village of Marovo, he sees larger areas of land clearing.
It was not always this way.
“All of our livelihoods depended on the sea and the water – we were reliant on the fish, the shellfish and the sea cucumber,” Hamley said.
“When I was growing up, there was no logging and fish were plentiful. You didn’t have to go far to find fish.”
Marovo is part of one of the world’s longest coral lagoons, and Hamley sees the logging as destroying the fragile ecosystem.
“When you fly over on the plane, you can see all the roads along the big islands, even small islands, there are not as many trees,” he said.
“The logging produces silt.
“The water is brown in the lagoon, and because it’s a lagoon it’s not washed away that quick. There’s not much current, so it stays there and kills the coral and whatever else is in the water.”
It also places further strain on the sea cucumbers that play a vital role in the environment.
“The sea cucumber eats the dirty sand and stuff from the sea bed, and what it pushes out is clean. So it cleans out the seawater,” Hamley said.
“It’s part of the ecosystem, that the ecosystem can’t go without.”
Looking for a sustainable future for the Solomon Islands
Hamley came to Australia as a 22-year-old to study aquaculture at the Australian Maritime College in Launceston and went to work at sea.
He started a family and found work at Rowella, where he has lived ever since.
His studies gave him intricate knowledge in hatching and raising sea creatures, including the sea cucumber.
Hamley devised a plan to help his village: open a hatchery in Marovo to provide the villagers with juvenile sea cucumbers to place in the water to grow until they are full-sized, ready to be sold. The process is then repeated.
He said that it could provide a sustainable income to individuals – as well as schools and community groups – while at the same time improving the health of the ocean ecosystem and reducing the need for, and damage from, the logging.
“I’m just trying to do my little bit to help that area, to help Marovo Lagoon,” he said.
“If I can do it there, in that area, and be successful, what’s stopping me from doing it in another area in Solomons to help them out as well? It might be the whole country.
“There are just several villages there near the hatchery that I want to help out first, and if it’s successful and gets better I can help the rest of the Marovo Lagoon.”
For the past five years he has worked on the construction of a hatchery using his own funding, but it still requires work. A recent loss in the family and the ongoing expenses of supporting relatives in the Solomon Islands has also made it more difficult to complete the task.
A GoFundMe was launched last month in an attempt to raise the remaining $80,000 to get the project off the ground.
Once the hatchery was complete, Hamley said he would return to the Solomon Islands to run it.
“Some of them heard about it and every time I go home on holidays, they’ll come and ask about it – ‘when are you going to start this?’” he said.
“I have to say, ‘eventually’.
“They are very interested in what I’m trying to do.”
The wider Marovo Lagoon has a population of about 20,000 people spread across more than 20 villages.
The majority struggle to earn enough for schooling for their children, and most drop out early in high school and search for work.
Because the logs are processed overseas, the logging industry provides minimal jobs for locals.
It does provide royalties to land owners and tax revenue for the Solomon Islands government, but these benefits fail to flow to the population.
“The environment suffers, and the people suffer, and it’s not sustainable,” Hamley said.
Chinese hunger shows no sign of slowing
The demand for imports to China grew in 2018 after a mass die-off in the country’s main sea cucumber production area, Liaoning.
They are now looking for new sources, including parts of Alaska and the Gulf of Mexico. But without sustainable sources, other ecosystems could also be placed at risk of over-harvesting.
It is a lucrative market, and one that Hamley hopes can lift the living standards in the Solomon Islands.
But even he finds the Chinese hunger slightly bemusing.
“Rich people in China eat them, it’s valuable to them, but we don’t eat them,” Hamley said.
“If you see them when they’re in the water, you wouldn’t want to eat them anyway. They’re just a slug!”
To support Hamley’s cause, click here.