Overview Objectives

This project aims to develop commercial-scale hatchery and grow-out technologies for sandfish, recognising that adapting systems to participating communities’ social, institutional and bio-physical settings is critical.
Sea cucumbers are a highly valued commodity consumed as food or medicine in China and elsewhere in Asia. Their harvest has for many years supported livelihoods in coastal communities throughout Asia and the Pacific. Sea cucumber culture could also be an alternative to shrimp farming. Sea cucumber ranching offers a culturally engaging activity for socially and economically disadvantaged Aboriginal people in the Northern Territory, with good potential for positive economic and social outcomes.
Overharvesting has led to widespread and precipitous depletion of wild resources.
Simple low-technology approaches to culturing sandfish (Holothuria scabra), a high-value tropical sea cucumber species, could restore coastal livelihoods and ecological function. Previous ACIAR funded projects and national programs in the Philippines and Vietnam demonstrated that sandfish culture technology could have significant effect if systems and technologies applicable across different social, institutional and bio-physical settings were developed.
This project will develop tools to determine where these technologies are unlikely to succeed.

Progress Reports (Year 1, 2, 3 etc)

Hatchery output has substantially improved at production nodes with programs continuing from the previous ACIAR project. The UPMSI Bolinao Marine Laboratory (BML) and SEAFDEC rear first stage juveniles in ocean nurseries. BML produced over 24,000 release-size juveniles (>3 g) which were released at the Victory and Anda sea ranch sites and the newly established Anda restocking site. The SEAFDEC hatchery produced 13,000 release size juveniles. The new Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources (BFAR) sandfish hatchery in Guiuan, Eastern Samar was expanded and ocean nursery production of juveniles was initiated. However, all the culture facilities at this site were destroyed by Typhoon Haiyan in October 2013 and rebuilding is underway. A total of 3,500 juveniles were produced using floating hapas and utilized in grow-out pen trials. Hatchery facilities in Mindanao State University-Naawan were upgraded, with an estimated capacity of 3M eggs. The hatchery produced 6,300 first-stage juveniles from 3 successful trials and 700 juveniles of various sizes were released in the sea ranch site in Laguindingan. A cross-site experiment to determine growth and survival of juveniles in floating hapas was conducted by UPMSI and SEAFDEC.
A pilot Local Government Unit (LGU)-led restocking program was launched in Anda, Pangasinan. The LGU will buy the juveniles reared by local partners for release in the restocking site. The project provided first stage juveniles for ocean nursery rearing and released juveniles in the restocking site. In Concepcion, Iloilo, a MoA among partners for the establishment of the Polopinya Island sea ranch has been signed. Zoning and delineation of a 5-ha ranch area, and the construction of perimeter markers and a watch tower are ongoing. In Eastern Samar, the MoA among partners was signed. In Laguindingan, Misamis Oriental village consultations were completed and the establishment of the sea ranch has been endorsed by the municipal council. A group of local households including cucumber gatherers was organized to be the managers of the sea ranch. Initial floating hapa nursery trials and experimental-scale juvenile grow-out in pens with local partners are ongoing. Discussions with local government units and community consultations for the establishment of a sandfish sea ranch have been initiated in Coron, Palawan and Igang, Guimaras. The sea ranch in Victory, Pangasinan has been sustained.
Bio-physical surveys of 8 potential new ranching sites have been completed across the 4 dispersed project nodes within the Philippines. Standardized protocols for biophysical monitoring agreed upon last October 2013 were field tested at the Anda Restocking Site and Concepcion sea ranch site.
A release trial was conducted on Goulburn Island to improve the survival of juveniles during the first 24hr post release. A commercially viable, boat-based release method fed juveniles to the open sea floor during slack tide and resulted in 19.1% recovery after 4 months.

Biophysical monitoring was conducted at 3 sites at South Goulburn Island (December 2013). Fourteen thousand juveniles (2-8g) were released during April 2014. Correlations with biophysical indicators will be analysed.

Associated social research: The Yalama Clan of Goulburn Island formally signed an agreement in December 2013 to set up a trepang (sandfish) ranching business on their sea country. They and the community’s governance body will work with a business consultant during May - August 2014 to produce a Business Plan to support an application to secure funds for a processing facility. Also underway is a VET aquaculture training program for local men, an aquaculture career programs in the local school, governance training and social research into appropriate communication and negotiation processes between Aboriginal people and external agents.

Hatchery production by the industry partner has continued to improve with the construction of a tank-based nursery, targeted to production 300,000 juveniles annually. A PhD student investigating broodstock conditioning is due to submit in December 2014. The focus of this research is tank-based conditioning of broodstock and identification of biochemical compounds to stimulate spawning. Industry-led trials at Groote Eylandt have progressed with the construction of a processing facility. The local Indigenous people have the capacity to process 10 tonne annually. No farmed stocks have been commercially harvested to date.
Project startup in Vietnam was delayed due to delays in contract signing. These issues have now been overcome, and experimental activities will start in the next month.
The collaborative work with FIS/2010/054 (PNG) has seen Vietnamese collaborator Nguyen Duy’s PhD (JAF funded) successfully commenced. The project focusses on improving the efficiency of hatchery production with a focus on nutritional requirements of sand fish larvae and the potential use of commercially-available algae pastes as a larval food source.

Hatchery production in the Philippines has increased, and is becoming more routine at most nodes, with the two large hatcheries (Bolinao Marine Laboratory (BML) and SEAFDEC) producing a combined total approaching 200,000 juveniles. A number of issues relating to food production, as highlighted in the previous annual meeting, have been overcome. The two smaller hatcheries (Guian, Eastern Samar and Mindanao), have each produced ca. 20,000 first stage juveniles. The Guian hatchery has continued to function from temporary facilities while the rebuilding process from TC Haiyan/Yolanda continues.

All Philippines nodes continue to work with at least 2 communities on ranch establishment, community engagement and governance mechanisms for ranching, with staff assisting across nodes with the assessment of sites. Three new executive orders/MoUs for the establishment of ranching areas have been signed in the last year, with socio-economic baselines either completed or underway.

An executive order declaring the restocking site in Imbo and implementing harvesting size limits for the wild fishery was signed by the Local Government Unit in Anda (Pangasinan, Luzon) on June 2014. A baseline socio-economic and perception survey is being conducted in Anda with community members who are directly and indirectly involved with the project, and those living near the restocking site.

A significant achievement is the establishment of a juvenile buy-back scheme with the Anda Local Government Unit (LGU) for the provision of juveniles for the restocking site. Post larvae are provided by the BML hatchery, and the community monitor and maintain the hapa system while the juveniles grow to release size. This has provided income to the Peoples Organizations who rear the juveniles to >3g. While it is early days, to-date the LGU has paid Php 13,549.25 (AU$385) for the 14,595 juveniles. These juveniles have been released in the restocking site along with additional juveniles provided by the project.

A cross-node experiment of floating hapa systems for rearing juveniles has continued, with very high variability in growth and survival rates. A clear relationship between stocking densities, growth and survival is emerging. However, there are also site-specific issues relating to fouling growth, predators and competition from other species settling in hapas. As hatchery production has become more routine among Philippine nodes, survival rates in this juvenile grow-out stage has emerged as a new and substantial bottleneck for most nodes. The annual meeting highlighted this as an area where increased research effort is needed.

Continued attempts to find ponds suitable for growing sandfish in Philippines have been largely unsuccessful due to both physical properties of ponds designed for brackish water culture, and the ownership structure of aquaculture systems. Corporate or remote ownership by city-based businesses/business people is not conducive to farming trials. Small-scale pond trials are continuing at the SEAFDEC node, and outcomes will provide useful information on growth and physiological tolerances.

Industry conditions have changed substantially in Vietnam since project inception. A substantial rise in global shrimp prices due to increasingly widespread incidence of Early Mortality Syndrome (EMS), and a concurrent drop in domestic sea cucumber prices have seen most farmers switch back from sandfish farming to white-leg shrimp (relatively resistant to EMS). Clearly, the availability of a second commodity (sandfish) has substantially increased livelihood resilience, allowing farmers to switch species as market conditions change. However, the switch back to shrimp has made it difficult to find industry partners for ranching trials. A site was eventually identified in Cam Ranh Bay, Khanh Hoa province to conduct sea-cage trials. A simplified version of the environmental sampling protocols used at other nodes has been adapted for Vietnam, and the first set of sediment samples taken. Juveniles of two size groups (10g and 20g) were released into cages, and growth and survival are being monitored
Sampling and biophysical monitoring methods have been adapted for local conditions (extreme tides and limited sampling opportunities) from those developed by project partners. New growth and survival survey protocols have been developed to assess the success of large-scale releases, within the constraints of local weather conditions. A statistician provided advice to ensure statistical rigour of all survey methods.

Collaborations between the Northern Territory’s Department of Primary Industry & Fisheries, the local Indigenous community on Goulburn Island and the industry partner - Tasmanian Seafoods (TSF) have been strengthened. Additional sandfish broodstock (60) were collected by Indigenous trainees on Goulburn Island for TSF’s program of juvenile production at the Darwin Aquaculture Centre. Juveniles supplied by TFS will be used for large-scale releases during 2015. TSF negotiated with the Warruwi community to harvest sandfish offshore from Goulburn Island for the first time in four years and 4 Indigenous trainees were given an introduction and tour of the harvesting process. An agreement is being finalised between TSF and Yagbani Aboriginal Corporation (the local community governance organisation) to perform a joint community harvest in mid-2015. This sets up a collaboration that can continue with ranching operations if successful.

A related project is investigating suitable governance models for Australian Indigenous fisheries, using sandfish ranching on Goulburn Island as one of a number of case studies. Industry partner Tasmanian Seafoods continues to expand their juvenile production operations and are negotiating with Indigenous communities in the Darwin region to identify new sites for ranching operations.

Philippines: Hatchery production in the Philippines has increased. In particular MSUN produced 93,305 first stage juveniles (about four times more than in Year 2). On the other hand, hatchery production at BML was lower due to water quality problems which affected mass production of microalgal feed. Juvenile production from SEAFDEC and the Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources (BFAR) hatcheries were below target due to various operational constraints. SEAFDEC worked with an academic institution (Northern Iloilo Polytechnic State College) to increase supply. The BFAR hatchery in Guiuan continues in temporary facilities while rebuilding from damage caused by TC Haiyan. Larger scale releases (> 10,000 juveniles) of > 3 g in the sea pens and sea ranch sites were made in Western Visayas (Concepcion) and Mindanao (Laguindingan) in addition to the sea ranch in Luzon (Bolinao).
All nodes continue to work with at least two communities on ranch establishment and governance mechanisms. Socio-economic profiling was completed in three new sites. The Luzon node expanded engagement with another village in Anda; and initiated community-based nursery rearing in three villages in Northern Palawan with first stage juveniles produced at the Palawan Aquaculture Company. Consultations were conducted with local government officials and local partners in collaboration with a USAID project (EcoFish) which provided logistic support and funding for pen materials. Monitoring with the community at Victory indicated improved growth and higher abundance of sandfish compared to the past two years.
Preliminary results of a cross-node experiment of floating hapa systems for rearing juveniles indicate chlorophyll a, phaeo-pigment and salinity account for a high percentage of variability in growth in the floating hapa. A paper based on these results is in preparation. As hatchery production has become more routine, the low survival of juveniles after release is emerging to be the major bottleneck. To address this, sea pen grow-out systems to condition juveniles from the floating hapas and protect them from predation until they grow bigger (> 20 g) are being tested in the W Visayas and Luzon nodes. An experiment on organic enrichment of sediment using Sargassum spp resulted in significantly higher survival and biomass after 30 and 60 days. A cross-node sea pen experiment to determine environmental factors affecting growth and survival of juveniles 3 and 6 months post release is nearing completion, while sampling and processing continue to correlate bio-physical parameters and growth across sites.
Philippines nodes have been active in international and national meetings (10 presentations) while SEAFDEC has conducted three hatchery training courses with attendees from 8 countries. Project sandfish hatcheries and sea ranch sites are becoming learning centres for responsible aquaculture and community-based sea ranching in their respective regions and have hosted student interns and international visitors. These activities have contributed significantly not only in raising awareness on the ecological and socio-economic importance of sea cucumbers, but also in empowering the local community partners.
Australia: Sea cucumber release methods suited to local conditions were tested and a primary paper submitted to Aquaculture (Taylor et al, 2016), with commercial and research releases all adopting these findings. The industry partner has developed, and is keen to test, a mechanical harvest prototype that could be used behind small boats (dinghies) by local Indigenous people as an alternative harvest method.
In February 2016, approximately 8000 fluorescently stained sea cucumbers were released into the Wigu ranching area at South Goulburn Island. Growth, survival and biophysical monitoring is ongoing. A comprehensive, locally adapted, methods manual has been developed based on best published practice.
Due to historical relationships, mistrust exists between Indigenous communities and the industry partner, Tasmanian Seafoods (TSF). The industry partner is currently developing a Memorandum of Understanding with the key community organisation, Yagbani Aboriginal Corporation (YAC). In doing so, the foundations for a healthy partnership is being laid. Social engagement research with communities has expanded and is funded separately; outcomes will feed into this project and take the form of a sea cucumber aquaculture ‘options’/ economic evaluation paper for communities.
A joint harvest between TSF and YAC in October 2015 produced 550 kg over two days (two low tides is approximately 4 hours) by eight community members. Harvesters were paid $10/kg for ‘green’ sandfish and were also trained on board TSF vessels in first stage processing. The community and industry partners were excited by the outcomes of the harvest and are keen to coordinate more joint harvests in the 2016 wet season. Training videos were made by local people in Maung language with English subtitles to inform future harvests. On Goulburn Island the YAC are looking at investing in a processing facility to value add to the harvest and sell first stage (as opposed to green) product to the industry partner.
Vietnam: Market issues and a resulting reduction in the number of sea cucumber farmers in Vietnam made establishing an industry partner difficult, however trials have continued. A size-at-release trial established in 6 seapens at Cam Ranh Bay resulted in no survival of juveniles released at 10 g and an average of 30% survival among 20 g juveniles (max 61% in 1 cage). Sandfish grew quickly, reaching 230 g in 5.5 months. Mortality was mainly due to predation by blue swimming crab. A new trial initiated in Jan 2016 saw 5000 20 g juveniles released into a 5000 m2 seapen. Monitoring for growth and survival continues, while a reduced set of environmental parameters are being measured to enable comparisons with other project sites.
Two experiments on nursery density and growth were conducted in collaboration with a student from Nha Trang University. Highest survival rates with sandfish at a density of 400/m2 in hapas was 80% after 6 weeks, and fastest growth rates were at extreme low densities (2 sandfish/ m2) with animals growing from 2 to 20 g in 5 weeks.
Cross-node research: All ranching nodes, including PNG (under FIS/2010/054) are using standardised methods for measuring biophysical properties of ranching areas at an unprecedented resolution. Preliminary analysis supports the idea that his research will provide invaluable data on site variability and environmental correlates with growth and survival. Preliminary analysis suggest prevalence of course substrate, and high chlorophyll production may be good predictors of site suitability.
PhD research on larval feeding conducted in PNG, but through a JAF scholarship to Nguyen Duy under this project, has proven highly productive, and standardised systems for larval feeding using commercial algal pastes have now been developed. Three primary publications have resulted from this work.

Project ID
Project Country
Inactive project countries
Commissioned Organisation
James Cook University, Australia
Project Leader
Professor Paul Southgate
07 54301234
07 3408 3535
Collaborating Institutions
WorldFish Center, Malaysia
University of the Philippines, Philippines
Southeast Asian Fisheries Development Centre, Philippines
Mindanao State University at Naawan, Philippines
Guiuan Development Foundation Incorporated, Philippines
Research Institute for Aquaculture No. 3, Vietnam
Department of Resources, Australia
Project Budget
Start Date
Finish Date
Extension Start Date
Extension Finish Date
ACIAR Research Program Manager
Dr Chris Barlow