Make Sea Cucumbers Great Again

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Raised by 20 people in 8 months

My name is Nuri Max Steinmann and I am currently a second-year student of the International Master of Science in Marine Biodiversity and Conservation (EMBC+) programme ( http://www.embcplus.org/). My thesis project will be carried out in cooperation with the Leibniz Centre for Tropical Marine Research (ZMT Bremen), in Germany, the Galway-Mayo Institute of Technology, in Ireland and the Institute of Marine Science (IMS), on Zanzibar, Tanzania.

As part of my dissertation project I am spending three months on Zanzibar to conduct vital research on sea cucumber genetics, and most importantly to gather new insights into the interactions between sea cucumber aquaculture, wild populations and the livelihood of local fishermen.

What are sea cucumbers?

Sea cucumbers are among the least appealing animals on this planet. They are not only called like a vegetable, they also look like one, but they are actually quite interesting marine animals. Besides their wide variety of colours and sizes, their importance as natural vacuum cleaners for marine ecosystems, they have also gained a lot of interest for some other features, which do not seem so obvious. How can an animal which looks like a vegetable and has no brain be so interesting to so many people?

Why is studying sea cucumbers important?

There is a high demand for sea cucumbers in Asian markets, where they are considered as luxury seafood (Prices go up to 200$ per dried kg), an aphrodisiac, and believed to have certain compounds which kill cancer cells. As a consequence, sea cucumber populations are being globally overfished, exploited and exported to Asia.  Driven by the ongoing decline of wild populations, the aquaculture and sea-ranching of valuable sea cucumbers species, have become an important and viable livelihood activity for coastal communities in developing countries.

The farming of sea cucumbers is thought to not only provide an economic value for local communities, but to also reduce the fishing pressure on wild populations. The farming of sea cucumbers is mostly carried out in sea-ranching systems. Sea-ranching is defined as the introduction of juveniles (either hatchery-produced or wild-caught) into the natural environment until they reached the desired size.

However, the consequences of genetic interactions between hatchery-reared and wild individuals are often poorly understood and a major problem in sea-ranching projects. For instance, hatchery-reared sea urchins have been shown to have a reduced genetic diversity and may negatively affect the genetics of wild populations. The mixing of cultured and wild sea cucumber populations may also display a genetic risk, due to the threat of inbreeding and loss of genetic integrity, which could reduce the overall resilience of local populations. Therefore, the preservation of genetic diversity must be considered in adequate management strategies of sea cucumber farming projects.

Why study sea cucumbers in Zanzibar?

Over the last years the development of an aquaculture sector in Zanzibar has been implemented, including the production of valuable sea cucumber species. The sea cucumber hatchery programme is part of Zanzibar’s aquaculture development project which is run by the government of Zanzibar in partnership with the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO).

The overall all goal of the FAO project is to supply juvenile sea cucumbers to local outgrow farmers and to restock wild populations. Until today, outgrow farmers obtain juveniles from other local fishermen, who collect them from the wild. Consequently, a sustainable production of hatchery-reared sea cucumbers has the potential to protect and restock wild populations, but only if management strategies consider the preservation of genetic diversity. 

 My research project

As part of my project we will try to reproduce sea cucumbers under controlled conditions for further aquaculture use and restocking procedures.

Furthermore, the need of new baseline data on the genetic structure and relationships of sea cucumber populations, has opened new opportunities to conduct genetic studies in areas were sea-ranching is carried out. My thesis project aims to investigate the population structure of wild and farmed communities of the sea cucumber species Holothuria scabra on Zanzibar.

Additionally, I want to investigate the status quo of sea cucumber farming in Zanzibar (Where? Who? How?) and discover the potential of co-culturing sea cucumbers with other species (More information: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Integrated_multi-trophic_aquaculture).

 How am I going to do that?

While most genetic studies use destructive sampling methods (Killing the animal! ☹), non-destructive sampling is more suitable when dealing with high value species, and more compatible with animal welfare concepts. I will use sterile swabs, which look like the cotton sticks you use to clean your ears, to take genetic samples of different communities at potential sea-ranching grounds and from the hatchery. The analysis of the samples will be carried out in the laboratory facilities at the ZMT Bremen, Germany.

To learn more about the sea cucumber farming on Zanzibar in general, and what further potential it has, I will work closely together with the local scientists of the IMS and the FAO, visit their facilities and employees, and document the work they carry out. 

 What are the costs?

Some costs for field work and the subsequent analysis in the laboratory are already covered by the Kellner & Stoll - Foundation for Climate and Environment ( http://www.stiftung-klima-umwelt.org/seegurken-aquakultur-vor-sansibar.html). However, there is still a gap of 1370 Euro (Research visa 310 Euro, flights 610 Euro, and logistics 450 Euro). The costs for accommodation and living are covered by myself.

If you would like to get behind this project and help to fund some exciting sea cucumber research project in Zanzibar, which will hopefully contribute to a more sustainable future of sea cucumbers and fishermen alike, then please use one of the options below. Every donation would help me a lot.

Thank you for your support or Ahsante sana!

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We reached the goal! Big thanks to everyone who supported me. Amazing amazing amazing! Your gifts will reach you soon ;)

Today I submitted my thesis, which is a great feeling after 9 months of hard work. It was worth it and you helped me a lot to make it possible.

Here the executive summary of my thesis:

Insights into the population genetic structure of sandfish (Holothuria scabra) in Zanzibar, Tanzania

The high demand for the tropical sea cucumber species sandfish (Holothuria scabra) has led to a decline of wild stocks globally. To restore populations and to satisfy the Asian seafood market demand, aquaculture production and sea-ranching of commercial valuable sandfish have been implemented in many tropical regions. The production of hatchery-reared juveniles intended for outgrow farming and restocking, is currently implemented in the Zanzibar Archipelago. However, aquaculture activities have potential constraints, which need to be addressed to ensure sustainable practices. In hatchery production and restocking programs of sandfish, translocation and artificial breeding is assumed to negatively affect wild populations. Therefore, genetic baseline data need to be collected to identify potential issues associated with these activities.

Here, we provide the first insights into the population genetic structure of sandfish in Zanzibar and Tanzania, using popular genetic markers such as mitochondrial DNA 16S and nuclear microsatellites. These markers were applied to samples from four different sampling sites within the Zanzibar Archipelago and Tanzanian mainland. The 16S marker was amplified in eight samples from three locations and seven microsatellites were successfully genotyped in 96 individuals from four sampling sites.
The 16S marker showed no variation among sampling sites, as well as no differences, when compared with available sequences from Malaysia and Papua New Guinea. This indicated that the 16S marker is not a good marker to detect intraspecific differences in sandfish, due to its conserved features. In contrast, microsatellites displayed a level of variation deemed suitable for genetic analysis of diversity within and among sampling sites, as well as genetic differentiation and structure among sampling sites. Findings indicated that there is no formation of subpopulations within sampling sites, and that a panmictic single population can be assumed. Genetic diversity was found to be low and indices for inbreeding were present in three out of four sampling sites.

Overall, findings suggested one single management unit, where hatchery-reared juveniles could be provided to outgrow farmers and for restocking programmes across Zanzibar. Furthermore, findings of low genetic diversity described in this study should be taken into account when planning future aquaculture activities to reduce the potential impact of anthropogenic pressure.

In case you have any questions, please feel free to contact me!
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From the shiny tropics back to reality. The lab phase has started!

About five weeks ago I returned to Germany to start with the analysis of my samples and to finish my project "Make Sea Cucumbers Great Again".

The past weeks, I have spent most of my time in the molecular lab at the Leibniz Centre For Tropical Marine Research in Bremen, Germany ( http://www.leibniz-zmt.de/en/) trying to get new insights into the holy DNA of my beloved sea cucumbers.

The first thing to do was to check if the DNA samples I brought from Zanzibar and Tanzania were alright. I ran a few test checking the quality of my 140 DNA samples. Luckily, almost all of them are of very good quality and perfectly usable for further analysis.

At the moment I am still testing the methodology which I want to use to identify differences and/or similarities in the DNA samples of the four communities I have sampled.

The questions I am trying to answer are:

- What is the genetic diversity within populations?

-What is the genetic structure and population differentiation of the Tanzania/Zanzibar region?

In 4-6 weeks I should have my answers :)

While most of the lab work is financed by the
ZMT working group "Ecophysiology" which is led by my first supervisor Dr Andreas Kunzmann, some money is still needed to finance the sequencing of my samples.
Every donation helps and feel free to spread the word!

Thanks so much to everyone who has donated so far!

The sea cucumbers of Zanzibar will be in your favor for ever!

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My three months field work are almost over, and both my projects have been very successful so far.

The sampling of sea cucumber communities in the Tanzania/Zanzibar area is almost completed. In two days, I will travel to Tanzania mainland to visit my last sampling location in Pangani. Back in Germany, I will start analysing the samples to get new insights into the connectivity and relationship of these communities. Fingers crossed everything will work out well.

The second project, the establishment of the sea cucumber hatchery, has also been very productive lately. We ran a few reproduction trials which failed, but since two weeks we are happy to have about 100.000 sea cucumber baby's, which are getting stronger day by day. We hope that we can soon produce enough juveniles to not only provide for local outgrow farmers, but also restock wild populations.

I would have never expected that everything would turn out so well, and I am really thankful for the support of all the people involved.
Unfortunately, my budget is running out and I could really need a little boost with my crowdfunding campaign to finish the last bit of my field work and also the analysis in the lab back in Germany. Every donation would help a lot!
Thank you!
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A bit more than six weeks have passed since I arrived in Zanzibar. So far, the project is going very well and exceeded all expectations. The communication and cooperation with the local scientific staff and the sea cucumber farmers have been great and made me reach most of my objectives faster than expected. Because of that I decided to extend the project. Under the headline “Setting baselines for sustainable sea cucumber aquaculture on Zanzibar”, I want help to make the sea cucumbers of Zanzibar great again.

First of all, I will try to not only sample the islands of Zanzibar (Unguja and Pemba), but also Tanzania mainland and Mafia Island, to get a broader picture of the genetic population structure of the sea cucumber Holothuria scabra.

Secondly, I have been involved into hatchery trials, trying to produce sea cucumber juveniles. It is currently tried to establish the hatchery of sea cucumber H. scabra on Zanzibar. Overall not that easy. After collecting the broodstock, the adult sea cucumbers must be stimulated to get into the mood for some good times. This can be done by stimulating natural events, such as hot season (heat shock treatment) or high food availability (algae bath). If stimulation is successful, the long and hard way of parenthood is waiting. To keep the little sea cucumber baby’s alive and healthy, they have to be fed and checked regularly.

At the moment, we run several trials at the same time and try to grow strong and beautiful new sea cucumbers, which will hopefully make the future of H. scabra on Zanzibar, just a little bit brighter.
Waiting for the sea cucumbers to make
Fertilized eggs...BABYS!
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Raised by 20 people in 8 months
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