A deep dive into sea cucumber conservation and consumption

For the 20 boats that make up Washington’s commercial sea cucumber fishery, diving deep under waters of the San Juan Islands is all in a day’s work — and we hear it’s a lot of fun, too.

“How can you not have fun in the San Juan Islands?” said Washington commercial sea cucumber harvester Steve Franklin, wrapping up the first day of the state commercial fishery, which kicked off in mid-August. “We saw some eagles today, we saw some seals, and underwater, of course, you always see a plethora of sea life.”

Franklin has been participating in the state’s small dive fishery, which stretches west from the Strait of Juan de Fuca to South Puget Sound and the San Juan Islands, for more than 30 years. Franklin and fellow sea cucumber harvesters are hard at work this August and September harvesting no more than about 200,000 lbs. of sea cucumber — a quota that Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) fishery managers set based on stringent science-based monitoring to support sustainable harvest for the future.

With the help of conservation-based quotas and the commitment of fishery managers and harvesters alike, we’re now starting to see the sea cucumber populations stabilize from historic overharvesting in the 1980 and 90s, when the fishery was at its peak. During that time, very few limitations were imposed on the fishery.

“Scientific surveys and stock assessments have developed and progressed since that time to where we’re able to estimate the biomass and make informed decisions on the quotas and the areas to harvest in,” said Taylor Frierson, WDFW sea cucumber fishery manager. “We’re now seeing that abundance level off and we’re expecting to see that abundance start to increase as the sea cucumber population begins to achieve the targets we’ve set to maintain healthy a population.”

State fishery managers use a suite of tools to keep tabs on how the sea cucumber population is doing, including conducting dive surveys, recording measurements on-board, and taking samples of harvesters’ bounty back at the dock. By tracking sea cucumbers size, density, and weight and length, fishery managers can start to get a sense of the overall population to set conservative quotas for future seasons. This data is often informed by metrics from tribal co-managers’ work monitoring tribal sea cucumber harvests as well.

The state also uses closed areas to sea cucumber harvest to support conservation measures, as well as to inform how size and distribution line up with areas that are open to harvest comparatively. Sea cucumbers can also naturally occur below diveable depths, which in a way naturally supports population recovery.

Sea cucumber overharvest in parts of the world where local oversights are less stringent remain a concern even today.

The California sea cucumber (Parastichopus californicus) is an important species in Puget Sound. It occurs in waters from southern California to Alaska and is one eight common species of sea cucumbers found here in Washington. Beach combers may be familiar with the brightly orange-colored burrowing sea cucumber, which you’re likely to spot in tide pools along Puget Sound. Of the sea cucumbers local to Washington, California sea cucumber are the only species harvested both recreationally and commercially.

Eating sea cucumbers

If you are new to preparing sea cucumber, a quick internet search will turn up common preparations and recipes — often drawing on Asian cuisine. Some people enjoy eating them much like razor clams by pan frying or breading and deep frying.

Throughout the year, you can sometimes find fresh sea cucumber in select seafood and Asian markets, though dried and canned varieties may be more readily available.

Demand for Washington sea cucumber more typically stretches as far away as Asia, where it’s traditionally eaten to support naturopathic medicine, often as a stew, or even in tablet form. As a high protein, low-fat option for a healthy diet, there’s potential to grow local markets as Pacific Northwesterners become more aware of the bounty — viewed as delicacy throughout much of the world — available on almost on their doorstep.

Whether as part of the recreational or commercial fishery, harvesting sea cucumbers gives folks a chance to experience all that Washington has to offer. And with local Washington seafood shrimp, crab, and salmon to halibut, tuna, and other fish and shellfish shifting with the seasons, there’s something for everyone throughout the year.

Visit wdfw.wa.gov/LocalWASeafood to learn more about in-season sustainable seafood and how the state and its partners are working to keep it on families’ tables, in the market, and on the menu.

Calling all sport sea cucumber harvesters: Celebrate #LifeOutdoorsWA

With a shellfish/seaweed or combination license, sea cumbers can also be harvested and enjoyed by the recreational/sport community (check and follow harvest regulations). Help us showcase your life outdoors harvesting sea cucumbers, or otherwise! By sending us your best photos, you can be entered for a chance to win outdoor gear! Your photos may be featured on WDFW’s Facebook and Instagram to celebrate the variety of ways people enjoy outdoor lifestyles and to inspire others to spend time in nature. In October, we’re celebrating life outdoor through Washington seafood. (And if you have a favorite recipe, we’d love for you to share that too.)

Enter our monthly photo contest August-December 2021 for a chance to win a Cabela’s gift card! Each month has a new theme and a new winner.

Participating is simple

  • Visit WDFW’s Life Outdoors webpage from now through December 2021 to find out the outdoor recreation theme for the current month.
  • Submit pictures of you, your friends, or family participating in the month’s featured outdoor recreation theme on WDFW’s website.
  • When submitting your photo, select #LifeOutdoorsWA in the category section. In the description area, tell us a little about your experience!

On the last Friday of the month, a winner will be selected and featured on WDFW’s Facebook and Instagram. Winners will also be contacted via email to receive their prize.

To learn more about commercial sea cucumber harvesting, visit wdfw.wa.gov/fishing/commercial/sea-cucumber.

The Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife is dedicated to preserving, protecting and perpetuating the state’s fish and wildlife resources.

The Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife is dedicated to preserving, protecting and perpetuating the state’s fish and wildlife resources.