Tag Archives: Hawaii

Sea cucumbers in demand as both cuisine and cure-all

Published December 21, 2015 in the “Ocean Watch” column, Honolulu Star-Advertiser ©2015 Susan Scott
Sea Cucumbers

Sea cucumbers are the housekeepers of the ocean floor, playing a key role in the marine ecosystem.
©2015 Susan Scott

Hawaii’s sea cucumbers made the news last spring when untold thousands were killed off Maui and Waimanalo.

It surprised me to read that collectors export the animals to Hong Kong for medicine. I didn’t know sea cucumbers were a drug. Apparently, though, drying the creatures’ bodies, pounding them into powder and compressing it into tablets is big business.

A brief Internet search produced a staggering number of maladies sea cucumber pills are supposed to help: whooping cough, bronchitis, urinary problems, some cancers, high cholesterol, high blood pressure, impotence, stomach ulcers, diabetes and senility. One site said sea cucumbers ease joint pain in pot-bellied pigs.

Only the pills Alice took work more magic.

Sea cucumbers are also popular as food chiefly in China, Singapore, Vietnam, North and South Korea, Malaysia and Japan. Cooks add chunks of sea cucumbers to soup, stir fry and other dishes.

The Japanese name for sea cucumbers is “namako.” In Hawaiian sea cucumbers are called loli. Ancient Hawaiians ate some species and also used the creatures in love potions.

“When loli is the offering,” goes the saying, “passionate is the love.” Markets sell sea cucumbers as “beche-de-mer.” I assumed this was originally a French dish because the words sound French. It isn’t. Beche-de-mer comes from the Portuguese “bicho do mar,” meaning sea worm. Another term for the animal as food is “trepang,” from the Malaysian “teripang.”

I’m fond of sea cucumbers, not in cuisine or as a cure-all, but because they’re the housekeepers of the ocean floor. With the help of tentacles surrounding a down-turned mouth, the sea cucumber sweeps back and forth, sucking in sand and mud to eat organic pieces fallen there. The creature expels the sifted sediment through its anus in pellets or strands.

Healthy sea cucumber populations continually vacuum tons of underwater sand and mud, playing an important role in the balance of the marine ecosystem.

Besides being crackerjack cleaners, you have to love an animal that breathes through its anus. Lacking gills, a sea cucumber slowly puffs up its body to take water in through the anus. After the creature’s respiratory tree extracts the water’s oxygen, the cucumber gradually deflates, exhaling water, again through the anus.

During last spring’s alarming sea cucumber haul, the state had no limit to how many people could collect. Now aquarium collectors can legally take 3,600 sea cucumbers per year, only from Oahu waters. Because no one has studied sustainability in Hawaii’s sea cucumbers, the number is a guess. Hopefully it will leave our Hoover population healthy.

Turtles rebound in Hawaii, but most use 1 nesting site

Published December 14, 2015 in the “Ocean Watch” column, Honolulu Star-Advertiser ©2015 Susan Scott
One photo, seven turtles. Oahu’s North Shore. ©2015 Susan Scott

One photo, seven turtles. Oahu’s North Shore. ©2015 Susan Scott

‘Turtle! Turtle!”

The call came from our Palau guide during his rare turtle sightings, and usually the animal was 60 feet deep and departing. We Hawaii snorkelers in the group didn’t exactly shrug, but we’re so used to close encounters with tame turtles that seeing one disappearing in the distance was no big deal.

Turtles are so common around the main islands today that it’s reasonable to think the animals have recovered from the threat of extinction. But there’s more to recovery than head counts.

Turtles encounters in Hawaii include them coming very close to examine what you're up to. © Scott R. Davis

Turtles encounters in Hawaii include them coming very close to examine what you’re up to.
© Scott R. Davis

In a 2014 paper published in the journal Biological Conservation, workers studied Hawaii’s ancient sites, market accounts, past menus and state records to determine the history of human impact on Hawaii’s turtles. The biologists divided their findings into three stages.

The first began with Polynesian settlers in about 1250. Archaeological digs show widespread turtle use among Hawaiian societies, which surely included egg collecting. Eventually, hunting pressure from a growing population destroyed most nesting areas in the main islands.

The second decline came with European contact in 1778. During the 1800s ship crews from Europe, North America and Asia killed turtles and collected eggs throughout the Northwest Hawaiian Islands for subsistence and commercial trade. By 1950 all turtle nesting areas in the northwestern chain were obliterated except for a single island in one atoll.

The final blow began in 1946. Due to a growing tourist industry, restaurant demand for turtle meat increased, and Hawaii’s government licensed turtle hunting. Because small coastal turtles were scarce by then, fishers moved to offshore areas where large, reproductive-age turtles swam. Turtle numbers finally got so low that the animals became protected under the Endangered Species Act in 1974, ending all legal hunting.

Protection works, and today the number of greens in Hawaii’s coastal areas is (arguably) about 61,000. But whether that’s close to or far from pre-hunting numbers no one can say.

Either way, this success story has a critical glitch. More than 90 percent of Hawaii’s turtles still nest only on that one tiny island 500 miles northwest of Oahu. This unnatural concentration means that the turtles are only one calamitous weather event, or one human-driven disaster, from losing their last egg-laying haven. That problem demands continued protection.

Nowhere have sea turtle numbers increased like they have in Hawaii, nor do turtles bask on beaches anywhere else in the world.

Sometimes it takes traveling to appreciate the splendor we have in our own backyards.

A turtle basking on the North Shore of Oahu, using a rock as a pillow. © Scott R. Davis

A turtle basking on the North Shore of Oahu, using a rock as a pillow.
© Scott R. Davis

Our Pacific golden plovers prepare for Alaska flight

Published April 6, 2015 in the “Ocean Watch” column, Honolulu Star-Advertiser ©2015 Susan Scott


A male kolea in breeding colors. Courtesy O.W. Johnson

Hawaii’s annual spring pageant is upon us, the superstars dazzling in their April outfits as they prance through backyards, across golf courses, among gravestones and between parked cars. The celebrities are Pacific golden plovers, our much-loved migratory shorebirds known in Hawaii as kolea.

Although kolea start molting into their striking breeding colors here in March, the birds stay single until they reach their Alaska breeding grounds. There males return to the same spot each year and, upon arrival, get busy rebuilding a ground nest of leaves and lichen.

Females, though, aren’t usually faithful to either place or partner. Instead they shop around, looking for the handsomest male with the finest nest.

After choosing a homestead and mating, the female lays four huge eggs, their total weight equaling her own body weight. If a fox, raptor or caribou eats or breaks her eggs, a kolea can lay a replacement clutch in a week or so.

As if this reproductive labor isn’t astonishing enough, it all takes place after the 6-ounce birds have flown 3,000 miles over the Pacific Ocean. Nonstop. In three days.

If a nesting attempt fails due to weather or predation, adults can return to Hawaii as early as June. But if all goes well, the couple takes turns keeping the eggs, and later the chicks, warm and protected.

When chicks fledge, that’s the end of family togetherness. Mother plovers leave for Hawaii first, in early August, with fathers following a bit later. Chicks stay in their Arctic birth areas as long as the bugs and berries last, with most arriving here in October or November.

If you see a scrawny bird in a new place, it’s likely a recently landed chick that survived its first migration (on its own — there’s no adult guidance). But the struggle isn’t yet over. New arrivals must establish their own winter territory, often having to fight established plovers and other bird species for space.

Only about 20 percent of kolea chicks live to reproduce.

If you have a plover pecking and hopping around your yard year after year, it’s almost certainly the same bird, because both sexes return to the same wintering spot. And you could have that feathered friend for a long time. Some kolea live for 20 years or more.

Our grassy Easter parade isn’t going to last much longer. All kolea fit to migrate leave Hawaii within a few days of one another around April 25.

I know that countless Hawaii residents join me in wishing our little superbirds fair winds, strapping chicks and bugs galore. A hui hou.

Marine biologist Susan Scott writes the newspaper column, “Ocean
Watch”, for the Honolulu Star-Advertiser, www.staradvertiser.com

©2015 Susan Scott