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Sea Cucumber Ranching Supports Equitable Ocean Conservation

When people think about centering equity in ocean conservation, a sea cucumber is probably not the first thing that comes to mind. However, sea cucumber farming is turning out to be an equitable solution for managing marine resources that could soon be used throughout the world thanks to some emerging leaders who are part of the Blue Pioneers Accelerator Program.

This intensive leadership development program builds capacity for solving complex ocean conservation problems through a curriculum that blends system and strategic thinking, collaborative problem solving, and rapid solution development. The Packard Foundation supported program started in China, but now includes participants from around the world.

The program runs a “collaborative experiments” competition, in which the pioneers work in teams to develop experiments that test strategies to scale conservation solutions globally after they are piloted in a country or region. The winning team, selected by their peers, receives a grant to carry out the experiment.

A recent competition awarded one team the chance to test their novel approach to marine protection: the use of Triple Impact Framework to guide the creation of an aquaculture business with strategic community and conservation focused impacts.

Sea cucumber ranching

© Timothy Kluckow 2018. Sea cucumber ranching can provide coastal fishing communities a sustainable and profitable way to engage their Blue Economy.

The team is led by Timothy Kluckow, the technical director and CEO of Full-Circle Aquaculture, who pitched the concept of harnessing the profits of sustainable sea cucumber ranching to fund the creation of a vast network of community managed, no-take Marine Protected Areas (MPAs).

Sea cucumber ranching is the practice of stocking hatchery produced juveniles into areas where their populations have been reduced through over-exploitation.

This form of MPA is the gold standard of marine protection, as areas where all forms of fishing are excluded have been shown to be the singularly most effective mechanism to protect marine ecosystems and biodiversity, and secure coastal fishery resources for the long term.

But coastal fishers and their communities are rarely in favour of their creation and the fishing restrictions they impose. These communities simply cannot afford the immediate opportunity cost of not fishing in these areas, nor the time, energy, or resources needed to patrol them effectively enough to prevent other fishers from doing so.

The project plans to showcase how the profits from the sale of sustainably ranched sea cucumbers from within these marine reserves can be the solution to bridging the economic shortfalls that often undermine the success of MPAs throughout the world, especially in low-income countries.

These hybrid no-take reserves / sea cucumber ranching areas could also be the key to successfully reintroducing critically endangered sea cucumbers to areas where their populations have been decimated due to the effects of decades of chronic overfishing.

Through sustainable sea cucumber ranching, Kluckow and his teammates are providing an example of how to dig into the roots of pressing global conservation problems

Sea cucumber ranching is the practice of stocking hatchery produced juveniles into areas where their populations have been reduced through over-exploitation. This is known as a regenerative aquaculture practice, and the reintroduction of these ecosystem engineers has profound benefits to the seagrass meadows they inhabit, increasing primary productivity and carbon sequestration of the seagrass, creating habitat and breeding grounds for dozens of other marine species, and even helping to buffer ocean acidity around them.


The densities of sea cucumbers within these reserves is maintained by periodic harvest of mature animals, the sale of which brings economic benefits to fishers that offset the income lost from the restriction of fishing within the fishery excluded no-take MPA. This income also covers the significant costs incurred by fishers for the effort, time and resources needed to govern their reserve and to patrol against illegal fishing of sea cucumbers and other species within it, costs which are often not accounted for when MPAs are created.

The profitability of these hybrid MPAs greatly improves their likelihood of resulting in truly effective community-led marine protection and governance, and ensures that they do not become one of a growing number of “paperparks” that are Marine Protected Areas in name alone.

Blue Pioneer Sea Cucumber Team MembersThe diverse and global team is composed of early and mid-career marine professionals that plan to use their different areas of expertise to develop an experiment to assess whether this triple impact approach to sea cucumber farming could work at a trial implementation site in Indonesia. If successful, the team has ambitious plans to scale up this approach to sea cucumber aquaculture in places all over the world.

Through sustainable sea cucumber ranching, Kluckow and his teammates are providing an example of how to dig into the roots of pressing global conservation problems. They identify and appreciate difficult tradeoffs and get creative in how they work together to find and scale solutions. Recognizing that equity is a derivative of complex problem-solving that must be baked into all parts of a solution, they incorporate lived experience as an equally valuable asset as science or existing policy.


Yuwei Shi is visiting professor and academic director of the Blue Pioneers Program at University of California at Santa Cruz and co-founder of Impact Management Academy. He is also a Founder Institute mentor. His current research and practice interests center on impact management and sustainability transition.
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