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Booming sea cucumber market? It may be a free-for-all, but it’s not good-for-all

Article reviewed:

Ferguson, C. E. (2021). A Rising Tide Does Not Lift All Boats: Intersectional Analysis Reveals Inequitable Impacts of the Seafood Trade in Fishing Communities. Frontiers in Marine Science, 8, 14. https://doi.org/10.3389/fmars.2021.625389

Sea cucumbers in a fish market

Dried sea cucumber wait to be sold in a fish market. (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

Booms and busts in sea cucumber trade

The sea cucumber— that bumpy, bloblike marine invertebrate— appears in cuisines around the world, but the highest demand may be concentrated in China. Here, sea cucumbers carry a number of culinary and medicinal uses. But the nation’s sea cucumber supply is outstripping demand, leaving an unfilled gap.

Modern international markets abhor this sort of vacuum. With Chinese demand (and prices) for sea cucumber high, coastal nations around the world are harvesting local sea cucumber populations and exporting them to China.

Palau is one such nation. This Pacific Island nation is ringed by habitats that support a robust population of sea cucumbers. Or at least— it used to support a robust population. Things changed in 2012, when Chinese demand drove a massive increase in sea cucumber harvest. In the space of just 48 days, more than 1200 tons of sea cucumbers were harvested and exported to China. Fearing overharvest, the Palauan government stepped in and shut down all exports— but the damage may already have been done. Today, ten years later, Palau’s sea cucumber population has yet to fully recover from the short-term export boom.

This story highlights some of the tensions in international seafood trade. On one hand, exporting seafood benefits local communities by providing a market for their catch, and a livelihood for their fishers. On the other hand, international demand can incentivize overharvest, hurting the community’s fishing futures.

That means it’s important to pay attention not just to the benefits of taking part in international seafood trade, but also its costs.

But in her recent article, Stanford researcher Caroline Ferguson makes the case that seafood science has taken an oversimplified view of costs and benefits of fisheries and trade. In the past, the focus has been on how a community as a whole fares when seafood trade increases. Turns out, Ferguson argues, when we only look at the whole, we may be overlooking important differences across individuals and groups.

Rocky island in a teal sea

Palau’s marine environments are home to multiple sea cucumber species. (Source: The Reef World, Flickr)

Fishing communities are mosaics

Every community is full of diversity— but when it comes to fisheries research, that diversity is often overlooked. Fisheries research focuses primarily on men, even though women contribute a significant chunk of the labor in small-scale fisheries around the world. In the Pacific, specifically, women’s harvesting accounts for more than half of small-scale fisheries catch. When you look just at men, you’re missing important patterns.

And it’s not just gender diversity that matters. Communities also contain people that vary across age, social class, race, citizenship status, religion. These characteristics— and others— overlap in each individual, creating unique identities. The scholar Kimberlé W. Crenshaw coined the term intersectionality to describe how all of these identities coincide in people, and empower or disempower them.

But while intersectionality has been increasingly explored in critical race and feminism studies, it’s new to fisheries science. Ferguson argues that this lens is essential for really understanding who benefits and who is harmed when international trade expands.

Gender, marriage, and citizenship

For an intersectional analysis on the impacts of the sea cucumber boom, Ferguson focused on three dimensions of identity: gender, marital status, and citizenship.

Each of these dimensions influence how a Palauan takes part in fishing. Gender roles influence where people go to harvest (traditionally, Palauan men fish in deeper waters and women stay in the shallows). Marital status influences access to fishing resources, like boats, that can increase catch. Citizenship status imposes visa and employment constraints, which influences the amount of time a non-citizen has to go fishing.

Beyond that, each of these identities influence each other. That means a married woman with citizenship has different access to fishing than an unmarried woman with citizenship, or a married man without citizenship, or an unmarried man with citizenship…and so on.

To understand how benefits and burdens varied across these groups, Ferguson and a team of Palauan research assistants went door-to-door in three villages, interviewing residents on their memories of the boom.

Officials and fishers inspect catch on a fishing vessel.

Australian and Palau officials inspect the catch on a Palauan fishing vessel. (Source: Coast Guard News, Flickr)

Cucumber boom leads to spotty benefits

Ferguson’s research found that, for any given fisher during the boom, it was beneficial to have a few key things: knowledge of the new fishing environments, access to motorboats to reach distant fishing waters, and business partnerships with state rangers who could authorize sea cucumber exports.

Those things were overwhelmingly held by men. In Palau, traditional fishing roles meant that men were more likely to have knowledge and experience in deeper waters where sea cucumbers were easily harvested. They were also more likely to own (or have access to) motorboats, and more likely to know rangers (who are also predominantly men). Given that, it’s not so surprising that as the sea cucumber boom took off, men were entering the fishery in higher numbers, catching more cucumbers, and reaping more of the financial benefits.

But marital status and citizenship added important layers to this story. Take motorboat access, for example, which ended up being key to getting higher catch. Being married to a man with a motorboat offered women access to this technology, and the fishing benefits that come with it. Across both genders, more citizens than non-citizens had access to motorboats— but for some non-citizen women who were married to a citizen man, boat access was a bit higher. That didn’t hold for non-citizen married men.

And that’s just motorboat access. Knowledge of the environment and access to rangers were also shaped in complex ways by intersecting identities of gender, marital status, and citizenship.

Just as the benefits of the boom were influenced by this complex mosaic, so were the burdens. The major harm of the boom was that it led to depletion of the local sea cucumber population. The sea cucumbers have yet to recover, so that aftereffect lingers through til today. That’s bad news for the people who have traditionally relied on sea cucumber as a food source, and who have maintained low-level harvest for local consumption. Who are those people? Women, mostly, both citizens and non-citizens. Today, these women have to work harder and search longer to find sea cucumbers to harvest.

Beyond Palau

On the whole, Ferguson shows, you can say there were both benefits and burdens from the sea cucumber export boom. But by zooming in on the differential access across the community, she was able to create a much more nuanced picture of who benefits, and who is burdened.

While this research offers an important case study of one sea cucumber boom in Palau, it also speaks more broadly to patterns seen across fisheries. Or patterns not seen, rather— too often, Ferguson argues, we miss the nuance of individual impacts by assessing impacts on the level of a whole community.

One benefit feels widespread: for deeper understanding in our fisheries research and policy-making, we’d all benefit from taking intersectionality into account.


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