The humble sea cucumber could be a sustainable superhero for the aquaculture industry because of its seabed-cleaning qualities.
The squishy, slimy, tubular invertebrate doesn't get as much love as orcas or sea lions, but the bottom-feeders could play a big role in fish farming, scientists say.
Giant red sea cucumbers are like the janitors of the ocean floor — they feed on organic materials in the sediment, said Emaline Montgomery, a marine biologist and research associate at North Island College in Courtenay, B.C.
That organic material tends to collect at aquaculture sites, where fish and shellfish are in a more enclosed space, she said.
"After all, everybody poops," Montgomery said.
But that can have negative impacts on the environment.
Montgomery, whose research focuses on the co-cultivation of species for sustainability in aquaculture, says this is where sea cucumbers could come in handy.
"The sea cucumber ultimately act like little garbage trucks or recycling facilities to help Hoover up and clean up the sediments that might be overly enriched near farm sites," she said.
Growing sea cucumbers alongside fish and shellfish at fish farms could make the industry more sustainable and more profitable, too.
There's a multi-billion dollar global industry for sea cucumbers and sea cucumbers products, Montgomery said.
Canada's piece of that industry is relatively small but could be larger if sea cucumbers become more integrated in co-cultivation, she added.
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Canada doesn't have a robust way of growing sea cucumbers from juveniles to adults in hatcheries like it does with geoducks, oysters and clams.
Montgomery is working with the aquaculture industry to find ways of using existing infrastructure to find containment systems that could help grow them, like nets that can be suspended underneath rafts or on the ocean floor.
"Using either recycled materials or net systems that already exist means we're lowering the barrier to entry for small growers," she said.
COVID has posed challenges but Montgomery says she's received "really, really positive" interest in collaboration from the aquaculture industry and plans to continue this research in the lab and in the field.
She sees her research as an innovative way to bring more sustainability to the industry.
"It's to everyone's best interest if we are able to improve the sustainability and health of our aquaculture industry, both from an environmental perspective but also providing new revenue streams and job opportunities for people," Montgomery said.
"If everything works as we are anticipating, sea cucumbers could be something that could be grown at any current aquaculture facility."
With files from All Points West
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