With a growing demand for sustainable and healthy food, sea cucumbers may just be the next big thing for European aquaculture. Closely related to sea urchins and starfish, they are the marine equivalents of terrestrial earthworms: they rework and re-oxygenate the seabed, and feed on the waste produced by other organisms such as oysters.
Asian cultures appreciate the species for its delicate flavour and use it in traditional medicine. International trade in sea cucumbers has been recorded as early as the 18th century! And as the international demand continues to increase, putting pressure on wild stocks, farming sea cucumbers is not just a lucrative economic opportunity, but also a way to protect marine biodiversity.
The EU-funded project HOLOFARM explores how farming sea cucumbers (try to pronounce: “holothuriculture”) in Europe can make a difference. The project is led by Agrocampus Ouest Institute at Rennes in France, an international reference in research on the subject, and involves several French academic and professional partners as well as local stakeholders. However, it is not just a French party. Once the necessary techniques have been developed, sea cucumber farming can be replicated anywhere in European coastal areas where local conditions suit particular species, with production in either dedicated or integrated multi-trophic facilities.
Through controlled production, HOLOFARM wants to improve sustainable sourcing options for markets around the world and relieve pressure on natural stocks. But the project also has a specific micro-economic objective. By enabling diversification towards new species, HOLOFARM aims to make aquaculture producers more resilient to challenges like climate change, diseases and invasive species. Moreover, in multi-trophic aquaculture (e.g. including as well algae and shellfish), sea cucumbers can improve the quality and productivity of the other farmed species.
From an environmental point of view, the HOLOFARM project looks in particular at biodiversity and ecosystem services.
After two periods of natural reproduction in 2019 and 2020 (disturbed by the COVID pandemic), the HOLOFARM team has succeeded in storing brood stock from a natural environment and recorded successful spawning, followed by larval rearing and production in their experimental hatchery. Test growth protocols have been established and trials at sea will be launched as soon as they have administrative approval. Much more research, including on behaviour, diet and mapping of microbial gut flora is ongoing.
The EMFF provides opportunities for research organisations to carry out innovative projects in partnership with companies or professional organisations with which they do not normally collaborate.
A positive side effect of the project is that it has also strengthened the links between research structures, professional organisations and partner companies. The experience has convinced the beneficiary of the value of such collaboration, which could seem complex at first but in the end proves to be very rewarding.
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- Publication date
- 26 March 2021
- Directorate-General for Maritime Affairs and Fisheries