The Sun’aq tribe’s fish processing plant Kodiak Island Wildsource finished its first season processing red sea cucumber, and faced more challenges than expected. The season ended Nov. 1.
“It seems like a lot more handy work than we were anticipating,” said Wildsource Chief Executive Officer Chris Sannito. “It went a little slower than expected.”
Wildsource is one of two processors that work with sea cucumbers. The other is Alaska Pacific Seafoods, Sannito said.
Red sea cucumbers — bottom-dwelling marine animals that have long bodies shaped like cucumbers and are a vivid red color — are part of a lucrative business.
Divers pick the cucumbers off the ocean floor and take them to the surface in bags.
Divers and a buyer told Sannito that whole (unprocessed) sea cucumbers sell for $3.50 to $4.50 per pound, but the final product sells for hundreds of dollars a pound, Sannito said. Processed sea cucumbers are sent primarily to Chinese markets, where people use it mostly in medicine, but also as food.
This year, the guideline harvest limit for sea cucumbers was 130,000 pounds, with 75% of the harvest caught within two periods, said Natura Richardson, assistant area management biologist with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game.
Although she could not specify total numbers landed and harvested for privacy issues, Richardson said the harvest limit was reached in four of the eight sections amounting to 110,000 pounds.
A total of 16 divers participated in the fishery for the first two periods and 13 during the third period. While the first period was open for 48 hours, the second period was open for 12 to 48 hours depending where the vessels were fishing, and each area’s available harvest quota.
Not only are sea cucumbers difficult to harvest — sometimes divers have to dive at night or dive in dangerous conditions — but processing is also a laborious process.
Sea cucumber processing starts with puncturing them and squeezing out any water. At Kodiak Island Wildsource, the employees salt and gut the sea cucumber.
The gutted product is sent to a secondary facility where it is dried and then shipped to China, Sannito said.
Other operations also extract the cucumbers’ muscles, vacuum packing the muscles and the skin separately, Sannito said.
To process sea cucumbers next year, Sannito said Wildsource will have to buy equipment to unload the harvests from the boats.
“It’s best done with a vacuum pump. We did it by hand; manually basket after basket,” Sannito said. “By hand it provided a lot of good work for our employees. It’s labor intensive.”
The eight Wildsource employees spent a week processing one boatload of sea cucumbers, about 15,000 pounds.
Despite the high price tag for the finished product, making money off sea cucumbers was difficult after paying for the salt and propane needed for the process. This batch was part of a custom processing work for a buyer, Sannito said.
Nonetheless, he plans on continuing to process sea cucumber in the future.
“We bought all the equipment. We just have to fine tune our process to get more efficient. When you run a cannery, we have to look at whatever it takes to keep things running,” he said.