It breathes through its anus, can liquefy its body and acts as the waste collectors of the seabed. Scientists now believe that a species of sea cucumber living off the British coast could become a lucrative culinary export.
A project will begin this year to see whether it is possible to harvest commercial quantities of sea cucumbers – which are animals not plants – from beneath fish farms where the seabed is laden with the organic detritus.
Experts believe it may be possible to clean up the sea floor below the fish farms by cultivating vast "herds" of sea cucumbers while at the same time producing a valuable culinary delicacy that is highly prized in China and the Far East, where processed sea cucumbers can sell for extortionate prices.
Matt Slater, a New Zealander and sea cucumber specialist at Newcastle University, has been brought in to oversee a research project that will investigate the possibility of setting up the first commercial sea cucumber farm in Britain with the long-term aim of exporting the animals to China.
"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," Dr Slater said.
"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," he said.
The species being investigated, Holothuria forskali, grows up to 10 inches long and is native to the British Isles. It is already caught in southern Europe for export to China and it has a texture and taste similar to squid, Dr Slater said. "It would fit on a plate. I've found it to be relatively tasteless to be honest. It's salty, but it takes up other flavours well and has a good texture, like squid. It's generally perceived as having health benefits," he said.
"China produces about 90,000 tons of sea cucumbers using similar methods and so it is proven as an effective system as long as the species being farmed is suitable to the local environment," Dr Slater added.
Sea cucumbers behave rather like terrestrial earthworms by crawling slowly around the seabed consuming any organic detritus in their path. In nature they provide a valuable service in waste recycling. "They are not particularly charming animals but they are considered a delicacy, and even an aphrodisiac, in some cultures," Dr Slater said.
Sea cucumber sandwiches
Known for its slipperiness – a test for all but expert chopstick users – the sea cucumber is a delicacy best served braised in a broth of shitake mushrooms. Its flavour has been rated by one western diner as "slightly lower than phlegm, the texture of which it closely resembles". Not widely available in Britain, so those wishing to try it should head to Chinatown. Take a fork.
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