Meet "Ocean Man" Scott our Sea Cucumber Harvester

June 18, 2021

Meet "Ocean Man" Scott our Sea Cucumber Harvester

Scott Perkins loves the water. The freedom, the silence, the serenity of being both cut off from the world and being a part of it at the same time – these are what fuel his passion for being a diver.

New Zealanders love the water that isolates our lovely, lonely islands in the southern hemisphere. Like many Kiwis, Scott’s affair with the water began at a very young age – in his case, snorkelling in the local rivers and lakes. When he was just six, his father took him out for his first scuba dive, exploring the waters off Kapiti Island with his own mini ‘pony’ air tank. He hasn’t stopped diving since.

Few know Oceania’s waters like Scott, and few have a passion for diving and spear fishing like him. By the time he was 18, he’d had a job in a wetsuit factory and was working in retail while operating as a diving instructor. An impressive 26-year career in diving has seen him seasonally harvesting paua and crayfish off the Chathams and in the Tokelau’s. He’s spent a stint at the top of Australia and in the straits around Papua New Guinea tailing and spearing crayfish, harvested tropical rock lobsters on the Great Barrier Reef, and filled chartered Cessna with live crayfish.

With more than one lifetime of achievements and experience under his belt, it’s little wonder that Scott has earned his moniker of “Ocean Man”, and why he’s a champion of sustainable sea cucumber harvesting in Aotearoa New Zealand.

Sea cucumbers are, by any measure, extraordinary animals. Known for their long bodies and leathery skin, over 1,700 species can be found around all the world’s oceans, with the most found on our back door in Asia-Pacific. They’re a vital part of marine ecosystems, recycling nutrients and breaking down organic matter on ocean floors. A handful of those numerous species are also edible; they’re considered a delicacy in some parts of the world and are thought to help stimulate the immune system and reduce inflammation.

The value of the sea cucumber has long been noted, with the earliest documentation of cooking them appearing in the Ming and Qing dynasties. One book describes them as “sea ginseng”, drawing attention to the high nutritional content. More recently, modern studies have discovered the sea cucumber is high in protein and chondroitin sulfate which helps grow muscle and deter their aging. They’re also extraordinarily high in marine collagen, which makes them particularly attractive in circulation, arthritis and skin products, usually in conjunction with collagen from livestock.

Scott’s been invested in the humble sea cucumber since he and his young family moved to Waiheke Island. Soon after settling there he became a licenced fish receiver, he registered his vehicle and started diving for sea cucumbers for himself.

“I didn’t have lots of money to buy into something like paua,” he laughs. Living on Waiheke Island, he came across an abundance of sea cucumbers while spearing fish. A little research later – and after a stint working for another business – he was diving for sea cucumbers in the gulf and down closer to Wellington.

“When I started doing it, nobody locally knew what they were; there wasn’t a lot of interest. In the last nine years or so it’s really picked up.”

It’s a developmental fishery industry, but Scott’s not interested in being part of a commercial fishing or diving operation. For him, sustainability is key for our relationship with the ocean, and without nets or long lines, he can ensure that ocean life continues to thrive.

Scott points out that around 70% world’s protein comes from ocean, but they’ve been hammered for decades – and it’s long been taking its toll. And sea cucumbers are no exception. Many edible species are considered ‘threatened’, while others like the California sea cumber remain plentiful.

Commercial practices worldwide vary. In the northern hemisphere – particularly in the colder waters and fjords of Alaska and Canada that the sea cucumber loves – the limited two-month season represents a more sustainable large-scale approach. Rather than each diver for himself, a quota system and even division among the boats helps reduce fishing stress. In New Zealand and the Pacific, however, greater competition can force each diver to catch a half tonne per day to make a living – and then a serious shortage the next year.

“I’ve watched the decimation of the paua in the Chatham’s to the point where they had 40% quota cuts,” says Scott. “On a moral basis, that doesn’t feel right, that kind of mass slaughter. Not after so many years of doing it and seeing it.”

“I want my kids to be able to do it in the future. Because of state of our oceans and way world’s going, it’s very important – if we’re making a healthy living being out on the ocean, that’s great, but we need to do it responsibly too.”

That’s why Scott’s wary of his bounty. Rejecting the methods of harvesting such as dredging, which causes widespread damage to the ocean floor, everything Scott catches is picked up by hand. It’s a tactile relationship with the ocean that makes the experience so much like being “in another world,” as he describes it.

“You really miss it when you don’t do it. The sights you see – it’s pretty special.”

“I have the privilege to be able to swim over ground and know I don’t need to take all of it; I can leave some behind for next year. I try to catch the bigger stuff, though different areas produce different sizes.”

Scott’s fascinated by the variety throughout the world’s waters. Stuart Island, he says, produces sea cucumbers a bit bigger, while those at the top of the Marlborough Sounds are darker in colouration but not spiky. Around Wellington and the gulf, they’re smaller and a bit spiky, so more similar to Japanese and Chinese varieties. But like fingerprints or zebra stripes, no two animals are identical, with their colourations and spikes all unique.

His love for the water is something shared with his young family. Scott’s wife helps with the harvesting, and they’re teaching their two kids how to dive. All keen to be out spear fishing, their dream is to one day live on a big boat of their own, sailing the world.

“We’re passionate about the ocean, about diving and sustainability – that’s why we’re doing it the way we are. We just love it.”

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