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Setting up high-value sea cucumber chain in Europe through a new fishing gear with no environmental impact and advanced processing equipment

Periodic Reporting for period 2 - TOPBALAT (Setting up high-value sea cucumber chain in Europe through a new fishing gear with no environmental impact and advanced processing equipment)

Reporting period: 2018-09-01 to 2021-07-31

The seafood fishery and processing industry has a long-standing tradition and is of key importance to coastal communities. Currently, the highest risk to the seafood industry is the availability of supply due to the decline in stock of traditional species. Hence, the need for diversification. Sea Cucumbers (SC) are echinoderms, in the same family as starfish. SC have a high international commercial value, and global demand is increasing in Asia; led by China. SC are a rather unknown yet highly available resource in Europe and constitute a very profitable product. SC are currently discarded in fishing operations that involve trawling and dredging. Instead of discarding them, fisheries will increase European sector’s incomes, particularly during fish-banned seasons of other species.

On the other hand, limited environmental impact of the fishing methods is core to assure the sustainability of supply (and thus, business) and is increasingly more valued by fishermen and consumers. The harvesting of SC is made either by hand or by using traditional seafood fishing dredges, (e.g. typical scallop dredges). These are ski- and beam-dredges usually constructed from a very heavy steel frame in the form of a scoop, with teeth along the bottom bar of the frame, that jump over obstacles by scraping and pushing, and that create irreversible damage on seabed’s animal and plant communities. The global challenges posed by current dredge / trawling fishing methods impact directly on fishing stocks sustainability. Bottom trawling produces comparable effects on the deep sea-floor to those generated by agricultural ploughing on land, and some countries have introduced fishing restrictions.

The fishing sector is also claiming for efficient methods and for the reduction of expenditure, to reduce business risks and to guarantee long-term sustainability. Fishing and processing costs are associated with the time and effort required to fish an adequate catch and to produce a profitable product. Moreover, those countries outside the Euro suffer from an additional risk that requires the produce to be extra profitable so that it is possible to buffer currency fluctuations (in countries such as Iceland, Norway, Scotland).

TOPBALAT’s innovations consist of two technological components to harvest and process sea cucumbers:

• A modified dredge adapted to SC. A new -tech fishing gear resulting from drastic modifications of the conventional gear currently used and the attachment of a high-end sensor system to provide the skipper with information on the gear’s position and fishing performance. The new dredge is expected to improve maneuverability, reduce damage to the dredge and the sea floor, and increase catch efficiency.
• An innovative processing machinery which automate tasks, and deliver processing accuracy and efficiency, with the aim of getting a commercial high-value product at low cost. This processing also impacts positively on the distribution of the product, as shipping further processed and dried sea cucumber is much more efficient cost-wise than frozen raw material.
The Topbalat project has three main objectives. Improving the sea cucumber fishing gear efficiency and ecological footprint. Designing and building a prototype of a processing machine that could fully process sea cucumbers into consumer ready products. And, commercialize the products, the fishing gear, processing machine and sea cucumber products such as dried cocoons, dried skin and frozen meat.

The development of the fishing gear was a great success that lead to increased fishing effort that drastically decreased downtime and failed towing efforts. With this changes the oil and fishing efforts have been lowered along with deduction in carbon footprint from less usage of fossil fuels. Environmental research was done on the bottom footprint from the Topbalat fishing gear design compared to traditional ski-dredge. The results show that the ski-dredge had a 52% deeper penetration marks on the ocean bed compared to the new design indicating that the environmental impact has been lowered significantly through the marks on the bottom along with fewer failed efforts and total exposure to the sea bed for a fixed volume of sea cucumber caught.

Sea cucumber processing machine that automates complicated processing of sea cucumber is vital for the advancement of the fisheries and value chain. With high labor cost, higher transport costs and the fact that sea cucumbers are fragile, the sea cucumber processing was somewhat stuck. The new prototype design is an ambitious project that allows for production of a cocoon shape product with viscera cleaned with a vacuum and robotic operation. Also the second part of the machine can automatically separate the skin and meat giving the machine possibilities to produce six products, cocoon shaped sea cucumbers, meat, skin, flower, ends and intestines, all specially separated. The prototype is fully operational with plans of production of the sea cucumber processing machine before the end of 2022.
TOPBALAT’s novel fishing gear is towed along the sea bottom by a fishing vessel to collect bottom-dwelling SC in a less disturbing way. The new SC dredge is based on the structure of a typical dredge albeit equipped with a series of modifications and add-ons that will allow to catch SC on sandy bottoms and even on those with high anfractuosity —submarine cliffs, steep rocky sea beds, etc.

Our novel SC dredge boasts rubber wheels, as opposed to the heavy metal bar of traditional seafood fishing gear, which decreases the sea bottom area that is scraped since only the rubber wheels are touching the ground letting the moving arms and light chains pick SC from the seafloor. The rubber wheels prevent the SC dredge from getting stuck in soft-sediment sea bottoms. Its weight is significantly lower than conventional dredges in order to improve the manoeuvrability from the boat in high anfractuosity sea beds. The net ends in a light bag (cod-end) with a rubber belly where the catch is collected and a one-way valve so that the SC is not forced out of the bag during the tow operations. Only adult-sized SC and other conspicuous animals are caught (e.g. sea urchins, starfishes), but these by-catches occur in a very low rate (<5% by-catches).

The dredge will be equipped with high-end sensors that will allow for the improvement on the dredge’s manoeuvrability and thus their harvesting performance. This sensor system will provide the skipper with a range of information on the gear’s position and fishing performance, previously unavailable:
• Provides indications of sea bottom relief and depth in a real-time echogram and relays pitch and roll/level info, which tells the skipper if the dredge is lying at the optimal harvesting angle.
• Indicates if the two parallel dredges are at a safe distance between each other. Typically, in seafood fishing each vessel tows two dredges simultaneously to maximise the operational costs.
• Measures how heavy the net is becoming to be able to pull the net when the catch is optimal.

Once the catch is harvested and taken to port, our proposition is to automate the processing line to obtain greater benefit margins both from cutting costs and from upgrading the final product value. i.e. dehydrated and eviscerated whole sea cucumbers have a much higher market price than cut and frozen SC, with a sharp decrease of weight of the final product.
Processing the catches
Close-up of the dredge ready to be towed.
The dredge in operation
User interface of the application at the console of the ship.