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Pastures New & Blue: Blue Carbon Sea Cucumber Ranching in Sulawesi’s Seagrass Meadows

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Indonesia is a global hotspot of coastal biodiversity, a sprawling archipelago including more than 17,000 tropical islands. Yet the nation’s growing population and demand for resources is placing increasing pressure on coastal habitats from mangroves to mud flats, coral reefs and seagrass meadows. While overfishing threatens pelagic populations of tuna and other large species, coastal waters are threatened from all sides by development projects, pollution, prop scarring, illegal fishing using bombs or poison, and the overexploitation of their more easily accessible resources. In South Sulawesi’s Selayar Archipelago, as across much of the country, it’s the men who head out on fishing expeditions, often for weeks at a time, leaving the island’s coastal seagrass meadows primarily in the hands of their wives and daughters, both as custodians and collectors of everything from crabs and snails to sea cucumbers. Empowering women with the skills to sustainably manage and utilise the resources of these critically carbon-rich and biodiverse habitats is an essential step towards truly comprehensive conservation of Indonesia’s uniquely rich seas.


Selayar Islands, one of the largest archipelago in Indonesia


Seagrass meadows are a frequently overlooked marine habitat, occupying a relatively narrow area between the land and the sea. While at first glance they may seem unremarkable, they are in fact a biodiversity hotspot, providing nurseries for up to 20% of the world’s most important commercial fish species, as well as countless other sea grass specialists such as rays, sea horses, crustaceans, molluscs, and other invertebrates. They also play a crucial role in maintaining the water quality necessary for healthy growth in adjacent coral reefs, indirectly supporting some of our planet’s most vibrant ecosystems, and absorb so much atmospheric carbon per square metre that they are often referred to as ‘blue forests.’ Much like the mangrove forests they are often found near, the secret to sea grass’ staggering productivity lies in the constant fluctuations of high and low tide which define their ecology, providing niches and opportunities for myriad different species within every 24-hour cycle. Though found only in shallow, well-let, coastal waters, it’s when the tide is at its lowest when foragers from Selayar’s coastal villages descend to harvest the sea grass’ riches, everything from crabs and lobsters to seaweed, and, of course, sea cucumbers.


Seagrass in Selayar, dominated by Enhalus acoroides


They may be a rather unassuming species to look at, but sea cucumbers are among the most important residents of any tropical seagrass meadow. They are typically the largest permanent residents, and the largest contributor of faunal biomass by weight, playing a vital role in the cycling of nutrients and oxygenation of sediments through their regular habit of burrowing, both of which support healthy growth of the sea grass itself. Not only that, but many species fetch a high price on international markets, utilised for everything from food and medicine to various cosmetic ingredients. Unfortunately, this also means they are frequently overexploited, a pattern which exhausts local populations and ultimately undermines the integrity of the seagrass ecosystems they help to shape. Maintaining viable sea cucumber populations in their natural habitats is therefore an important part of wider efforts to conserve seagrass, and an opportunity to engage local communities in stewardship of these unique marine meadows.


Black sea cucumber (Holothuria atra) found in Selayar coastal area


As part of the Darwin Initiative, the Centre for Sustainable Energy and Resources Management at Indonesia’s National University is piloting sustainable sea cucumber ranching in Selayar’s seagrass meadows, part of the Takabonerate-Kepulauan Selayar Biosphere Reserve, bridging the gap between local interests and global concerns via an innovative approach to producing one of the world’s most sought-after seafood specialities – white sandfish (Holothuria scabra). Our field teams are conducting ongoing and comprehensive habitat assessments to identify ideal locations for developing this semi-wild approach to aquaculture, in which sea cucumbers are released into coastal seagrass meadows, monitored and managed by local residents, before being harvested for sale and processing. By ensuring a stable population of these important invertebrates in their natural habitat, this project not only protects an endangered species and the ecosystem which they help sustain, but will also provide significant income for Selayar’s women at a time when overfishing and population pressures leave households dependent entirely on fishing increasingly vulnerable.


Sandfish (Holothuria scabra) reared in PT SPK, Lombok


Meeting the needs of all the stakeholders in this project involves innovation at every stage, from modifying established methodologies to suit the specific hydrological and ecological conditions of Selayar’s coastline to building partnerships with the private sector and government institutions. We have been working with a well-established sea cucumber producer to develop a grow-out and buy-back model to ensure fair and predictable income for participants, as well as with local development agencies and the Marine and Fisheries Ministry to ensure the necessary support for integrating blue carbon sea cucumber ranching into the regional economic system. The intention is to develop a bottom-up framework for sustainable utilisation of seagrass meadows with support at every level, and in-built incentives to ensure that the value of these vital blue carbon sinks is recognised for the benefits it brings to local residents as well as the global community.


Pen culture in Selayar


Darwin Initiative funding has been instrumental in our ongoing efforts to realise a new model of coastal conservation for Indonesia’s small islands, reconnecting the economic interests of local communities with the health of the ecosystems on which they depend.


Writer: Christopher Kelly

Editor: Qurratu Ainin

Images courtesy: CSERM UNAS


This article is part of the project ‘Developing Sustainable Near-shore Sea Cucumber Aquaculture on Selayar Island, Indonesia’ (Project ID: 30-025).






Funded by the UK Government through Darwin Initiative

News Projects

Wallace Symposium; Commemorating 200 Years of the Birth of Alfred Russel Wallace

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In commemoration of the 200th Anniversary of Alfred Russel Wallace’s Birth, Hasanuddin University in collaboration with the Indonesian Academy of Sciences (AIPI) held a symposium titled “Wallace Science Symposium and Food Trace Tracing of Alfred Russel Wallace in Maros”. The event carried the theme “Celebrating the Diversity and Endemicity of Wallacea on Land and Sea”. It took place for three days, 13-15 August 2023, at the Hotel and Convention Ballroom, Unhas Tamalanrea Campus, Makassar and presented more than 200 participants from various universities, government agencies and environmental organizations.

Wallace Symposium with all participants

The event presented a series of scientific presentations by leading national and international scientists in various fields of science, such as the threat of endemic animal habitats, the social and cultural life of the community, the potential for renewable energy and biodiversity as the results of new findings and ideas in the Wallace area. The event also features panel discussions and question and answer sessions to enhance national and international scientific research collaboration in terms of conservation biology and other topics of national and international interest.

On this occasion, the Centre for Sustainable Energy and Resources Management (CSREM) of the Universitas Nasional (UNAS) participated in presenting a scientific presentation of the results of a case study from the project “Developing Sustainable Near-shore Sea Cucumber Aquaculture on Selayar Island, Indonesia”. The title “Why Blue Carbon Sea Cucumber Aquaculture is Crucial of Indonesia’s Sustainable Development Agenda” was represented by Qurratu Ainin as the Project Manager.

Presentation from CSERM UNAS about sea cucumber aquaculture in Selayar

The project aims to reduce the pressure of catching wild sea cucumbers, particularly sandfish (Holothuria scabra), which have an important role in maintaining the health of seagrass ecosystems. In addition, the project is expected to be able to increase the economic income of fishing communities and actively participate in seagrass ecosystem conservation activities.


GCRF Blue Communities: Project 4 (Marine Renewable Energy)

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Project 4 case study site is located in Taka Bonerate Selayar Islands Biosphere Reserve, which was designated as a UNESCO’s Man and Biosphere site in 2015. The area is a mini archipelago of 130 islands in South Sulawesi Province, Indonesia with 60 village-level marine protected areas, covering 52 coastal villages, a national marine park, 11 sub-districts, 57 coastal Villages and 74 non-coastal villages.

With a total of 17,504 islands, Indonesia itself is the largest archipelago in the world. Its coasts and seas stores enormous potential, not only from a diverse range of marine ecosystem services, but also from their significant renewable energy resources. Whilst the national electricity company (PLN) has a mandate to supply all of Indonesia’s communities with a reliable and consistent source of electricity, it has significant challenges in achieving 100% coverage, particularly in remote areas. Many of these areas are inhabited by small maritime communities who live nearby marine energy potential that can be utilised to meet their local demand for electricity supply, as well as to meet their energy requirements for aquaculture, water desalination, ice production, and refrigeration, which are essential for their sustainable livelihoods.

The Project aims to investigate the possibility of, and introduce where appropriate, marine renewable energy systems as part of an integrated solution to obtaining Taka Bonerate-Selayar Islands’ local community welfare whilst protecting the natural ecosystem and mitigating the challenges of climate change. For this, baseline information on energy supply and demand, natural resources governance, and local businesses and supply chain have been gathered this year, and throughout the next 3 years Project 4 team members will continue to engage in participatory planning and action research with local community members, decision makers, government officials, local businesses, and academic partners to produce:

  • Identification report on Taka Bonerate Selayar Islands Biosphere Reserve’s energy demand-supply profile
  • Joint paper publication on marine renewable energy resources potential in Taka Bonerate Selayar Islands Biosphere Reserve
  • Training modules on approach to renewable energy assessment in remote communities
  • Training modules on marine renewable energy systems conceptual design in remote communities
  • Strategic report on marine renewable energy systems for Taka Bonerate Selayar Islands Biosphere Reserve
  • Strategic report on skills development needs to establish local business case and supply chain in Taka Bonerate Selayar Islands Biosphere Reserve
  • Strategic report on marine spatial planning recommendations for Taka Bonerate Selayar Islands Biosphere Reserve
  • Policy brief for Local Government Departments and Indonesia’s relevant Ministries
  • Joint paper publications on relationships between sustainable energy and resources management in relation to the Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) targets

By Dr Leuserina Garniati, Centre for Sustainable Energy and Resources Management, Universitas Nasional



GCRF Blue Communities: Project 2 Introduction

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Tropical marine and coastal ecosystems – coral reefs, mangroves, seagrasses – are vital for the livelihoods, food security and well-being of millions of people in Southeast Asia. However, many families are locked in poverty as the marine resources that they depend on dwindle due to destructive practices, overharvesting and the deterioration of ecosystems. Clearly the current way we manage tropical marine resources is not working. We therefore need new or improved approaches to – or innovations in – marine management.

In Project 2 of Blue Communities, we are analysing promising marine planning models in three UNESCO Man and Biosphere Reserves in Indonesia, Philippines and Vietnam, and a large marine park in Malaysian Borneo. Using a newly designed Participatory Marine Governance Analysis toolkit, we are seeking to discover the ingredients of – and obstacles to – success so that we can find opportunities to improve management of these reserves and parks. And then share this learning across the reserves and parks, and more widely. By understanding this, we can reveal how the Blue Communities programme can add value to existing efforts and investments in marine management in the region.

Blue Communities researchers in each country invited key practitioners managing the reserves to be part of their project 2 team. The practitioners offer an insider’s perspective on the workings of the reserve and increase the chances that the findings of project 2 will be acted upon.

At an event in Kuala Lumpur, these practitioner and academic teams received training from UK researchers in participatory methods, which help those involved in implementing a new marine management approach to reflect on what has worked, what has not worked, and what could be done better in the future. Each team is now planning their research in their case study marine reserve.

The Western Philippines University (WPU) project 2 team began field activities in October 2018, studying the Environmental Critical Areas Network (ECAN) in the province of Palawan, an island in the west of the Philippines. Through the ECAN, the seas of Palawan are being designated as biologically important core zones, where human activity is prohibited, and multi-use zones, where limited small-scale fishing, mariculture, recreation and education and research activities are permitted. The team sought to learn from its implementation so far to support future zoning efforts.

A workshop was held with provincial level actors and a workshop in the municipality of Aborlan, which has been a frontrunner in implementing ECAN at the local level. Firstly, participants at each workshop conducted an innovation history analysis, whereby timelines of the establishment and implementation of ECAN were co-created by stakeholders, who then discussed what lessons could be learnt so far. Secondly, they mapped on flip chart paper the key people and organisations involved in or affected by ECAN, the important and challenging relationships between them, and created towers to represent how influential they perceived each actor to be on the successful implementation of ECAN. The team is currently analysing the results, but some previously unrecognised challenges were identified that are likely to have major implications for how ECAN is rolled out across marine areas of Palawan.

Fieldwork begins in Indonesia, Malaysia and Vietnam over the next three months, with Project 2 research promising to make significant contributions to helping stakeholders in each case to understand issues with, and opportunities to improve, their current governance approaches. We hope for the teams to share what they have learnt from their cases with each other at the Blue Communities annual meeting in 2019.

By Dr Matt Fortnam, University of Exeter