Could the sea cucumber be the saviour of our seas?

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Scientists at Newcastle University are looking at the role the sea cucumber could play in fish farms – and could we soon be seeing it on the British menu?

Pressures from the export of sea cucumbers to places such as China have depleted natural stocks worldwide and a team at Newcastle University, led by Professor Selina Stead, is investigating how to utilise sea cucumbers for sustainable farming of seafood by acting as a natural cleaner for fish farms, including adding sea cucumber to the British menu!

Sea cucumber expert Dr Matthew Slater who is part of the team explains: "We wanted to find a way to clean up waste produced by large-scale aquaculture so that farming activities in the sea have little or no impact on the ocean floor, by growing sea cucumbers on waste from fish farms we are not only farming a valuable food product and giving the wild sea cucumber populations a chance to recover, we are also developing solutions to fish farming impacts."

Sea cucumbers are already a delicacy in Chinese cuisine, and are used in Chinese medicine as they are a rich source of nutrients such as glucosamine and chondroitin.

The sea cucumber project is being unveiled as part of a marine conference being held at Newcastle University today.

Currently the majority of work has been carried out at the university’s Dove Marine Laboratory, with the next stage being to introduce sea cucumbers to fish farms around the UK, where they can be used for clean up and food. In addition to work being carried out the UK, the team has the lead on a major aquaculture project in Tanzania.

Professor Stead highlights that this method of aquaculture could provide a valuable and sustainable income. She explains: "One of the key aims of the project is to find solutions for developing community-led aquaculture in East Africa as a way of tackling poverty, sea cucumbers are fairly simple to farm, they just require clean water and plenty of food in the form of nutrient-rich waste.

"Man's impact on the sea has escalated in recent decades and it is vital we work quickly to try to reverse some of the problems we have caused. Key species of sea cucumbers are already dangerously close to extinction unless we pull back now and give them a chance to recover."

The use of sea cucumber as a food is not as bizarre as first thought, according renowned chef Heston Blumenthal. In a recent Channel 4 programme Blumenthal states that the Victorians ate sea cucumber, and he went on to prepare a sea cucumber for one of his famous feasts.