Sea cucumbers can be found living on the ocean floor in many areas of the world. Like starfish and sea urchins, sea cucumbers are echinoderms. Unlike their beautiful relatives, sea cucumbers are leatherier and more elongated, often living partially buried in the sediments of the ocean floor. Sea cucumbers feed on small particles such as algae, tiny aquatic critters, and often waste materials. They break down these things into even smaller pieces which are then consumed by bacteria before being cycled back into the ecosystem. Therefore, sea cucumbers are important for nutrient cycling in benthic ecosystems in the ocean.
In Asia, sea cucumbers are often considered a delicacy and are consumed by humans. Wild populations of these sea creatures are becoming more exploited, rendering the culture of sea cucumbers an increasingly common occurrence. Over the past 20 years, advances have been made in the aquaculture of sea cucumbers. This is especially true for temperate species. Advances have been made in broodstock collection and management, induced spawning, larviculture, rearing, nutrition, and grow out techniques for sea cucumbers.
Recently, sea cucumbers have been considered for integrated multitrophic aquaculture. This technique is similar to polyculture, but instead of multiple species being cultured together, different species that inhabit different trophic levels are cultured together. IMTA operations are fashioned to improve efficiency, reduce waste, and provide ecosystem services. The species at lower trophic levels typically use the waste products produced by species at higher trophic levels as nutrients. These species effectively help clean up the wastes produced, making the operation more environmentally friendly and reducing the amount of cleaning that needs to take place. Then, the species at the lower trophic levels can be harvested in addition to the species at the higher trophic levels.
Researchers on the west coast of Canada have begun looking towards sea cucumbers to fill one of the lower trophic level spots in IMTA operations. Being able to remove excess organic matter from the surrounding water and sediment, sea cucumbers can effectively serve as an extractive species to remove wastes from fish farms or shellfish operations. This would render the operations more sustainable, both environmentally and economically. Being able to sell the sea cucumbers to Asian markets will offer another form of revenue to these farms, while also providing a safe and sustainable cleaning method for fish waste products. Can sea cucumbers save the day when it comes to sustainable waste removal? Only time can tell.
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