From seaweed, sponges,

sea cumbers and sea turtles


Bordered from the South Chinese Sea, the Pacific Ocean, the Celebes  and the Sulu-Sea the Philippine island archipelago offers an often confusing change of sea  and country sides. Large is the diversity of life-forms in its waters, considerable the economic importance of fishing on the Philippines. More than two million Filipinos find their (meagre) incomes in the fishing  sector. More than 30 kg fish a year are consumed per capita on average. Thereby  the possibilities of deep-sea fishing are not yet exhausted because of reasons of undercapitalization. On the other hand Japanese trawlers use their possibilities  in a very extensive manner.

But we don’t want to speak here from mackerels, cuttle-fishes, sardines or the aqua-farming of Bangus- or milk- fishes (e.g. in the Manila-Bay). And we do not consider the dangers of catch profits by the overexploitation of the seas, water pollution or use of prohibited  catching methods (too small meshes of nets, dynamite fishing). From the long-span arch in the evolutionary process of development we want only select some beings which are less known - as the sea-  weed, sponge and sea cucumber.

Seaweed plants

Seaweed plants as macro algae build up themselves from inorganic compounds in photosynthetic processes under the influence of sunlight. They can reach a length of two meters in tropical areas. They grow predominantly in the reef regions. Some however have been found in two hundred meters depth. According to the differentiation on colour  four classes can be distinguished coarsely: the mostly microscopically small blue algae and the green, brown and red algae. The last one is particularly found at deeper locations.

They are under ecological aspects (construction of comprehensive food chains / global oxygen production) not so important as the microscopically small phytoplankton. But already in the last centuries seaweed plants have been used economically. Soda and iodine was produced from it until cheaper sources of supply could be found. It is suitable for fertilising low yield fields and it is used - like the brown seaweed from Saragossa-Sea - as animal food. In surf zones in front of the coral reefs, the green berry seaweed (sea grape)  can be found very often. It contains proteins, fat, carbohydrates and vitamins and is eaten  as  salad (lato). The cultivation of Lentillifera seaweed – now cultivated for instance  at Mactan Island on former mangrove areas -  serves the same purpose. The Badjaos – living on Sulu Islands as lake-dwellers -  also do aqua farming of seaweed. They lay out fields of Agar-Agar-seaweed under water and after drying of harvest they sell it to wholesalers of the chemical and pharmaceutical industry. It is used for the production of emulsions and bacteriological culture mediums.

Tawi-Tawi group of islands - also sited in the Sulu-Sea - is regarded as the "World Bowl of Seaweed”. Here Eucheuma-seaweed (local names: "guso" or "gulaman dagat" ) is cultivated by more than 75.000 sea-farmers. These plants supply after some steps of processing a jelly kind of substance - the Carrageen -, that binds as a colloid water exceptionally well. Because of these qualities carrageen is used as a food additive and stabilizer. The uses are diverse. It is utilised for hardening of ice cream  and as an emulator in production of cosmetics, coconut butter, chocolates, milk products, syrups and gels.

A boom or downfall  in seaweed production in the Philippines depends whether its final product is getting a further entrance to the American markets or not. After  being banished for eight years the American Food and Drug administration (FDA) classified in 1990 the  carrageen coming from the Philippines as "safe and fit" for human consumption. This decision is appealed by two American companies, which are also producing  Carrageen. They put the FDA under massive pressure demanding for new test series. The Philippine producers are arguing, that their high-molecular carrageen is healthier for human consumption than the American low-molecular competition product and more- over more economical. The intentions of the American  companies would only be the monopolisation of American market with  their more expensive products. The potential of market is estimated on to 300 millions US $. Approximately 100.000 jobs are at risk. Moreover, carrageen has a high export value. The production is labour-intensive and needs compared to the textile and semiconductor industry nearly no imported initial products.

                                                       Sea sponges

Sea sponges, in earlier centuries described as plants, are belonging to the primitive multi-cellular animals. They have no nerve cells or no sense organs. Scourge cells of the inner body shift suck nutrient water which is then ejected over larger openings  again. The pump performance can be considerable. Sponges remain on their position, only in the phase of larva they are migrating. They grow slowly - ages of up to 50 years were already found - and can achieve in the deeper sea a height up to ten meters. Sea sponges can develop crawling flatly, her figure can but also be roll-, horns-, or mushroom shaped. Its charming full colour spectrum includes the colours:  black, brown, white, green and red. The round about 5000 kinds can be divided into five classes according to the condition of their skeleton.

The economical importance is rather small. Only few horn sponge kinds are suitable for production of bath sponges. The Philippines have in the harvest of sponges no significant importance on the international market. Nevertheless numerous sponges can be found at the Philippine reefs. Well known are the “white elephant ears”, highly growing basket sponges as  the “Venus basket” or the “Neptune cup”. Beside the well known Apo-Reef  a multitude of smaller islands are places of discovery.

                                                            Sea cucumbers

Sea cucumbers are belonging like the stars fishes or the sea hedgehog to the family of  echinoderms. But neither they resemble these in her external figure nor dispose they  stings. They have only blunt tender outgrowths on her mostly black or brown outer skin. Their  cylindrical body can grow up to a meter long. Lines of little tube-feet are running along five body strips. The gill-breathing sea cucumbers have no brain. With movements like a worm they search after  micro-organisms in the shallow coastal waters. Isolated they are to be met also in deeper water. They have only just a few natural enemies. If they feel disturbed, they can expel parts of her adhesive entrails which regenerate after two months again.

Black sea cucumbers are best represented on the Philippines. Caution is advised however in  case of consumption. Some dispose of poisonous body secretions, which can only be disassembled by special cooking procedures. Edible is the brown “Thelenota pineapple” (susuhan) or the red “Halodeima edulis” of the deep sea. The Chinese estimate it as a delicacy (trepang). The  expert R. Hanewald gives the following recipe:

"Cut along the  sea cucumber and open it. Remove entrails. Bring it 15 minutes to the boil, then dig it into the bank sand overnight (it loosens the outer skin). Wash and smoke it over light smoking two days. Then dry it in the sun. Cook it tender  for consumption and serve it with vegetable meals.”

Such one shying the long preparation time - with look on the duration of stay period of his visa - can also buy Trepang on exotic markets. There are again the Badjaos who cultivate  systematically sea cucumbers around her stake villages.

    Sea turtles

Once sea turtles were numerous on the Philippines. They served as foods and oil could be won from them. Their number reduced drastically. Larger populations  can be found only on Turtle Islands in the Sulu sea and remote coast lines in the north and east of the island Palawan. Still larger groups place their eggs on Palay Island on the northern top of Palawan from November by December. The Cuyo islands in the northern Sulu sea may be explained  as a protection area. To which enemies eggs and young turtles are exposed, and how small the chances of reproduction are, has been subject of many publications.

There are especially two kinds of sea turtles that could be found on the Philippines: The hawksbill turtle whose  strong jaws can break open crustaceans or tear sponges. And the green turtle, which is a little larger and more numerous. Its name derives  from the green colour of  meat. The green sea turtle has a rounded shape  and shows no overlapping of the scales on its spine card. It grazes as a vegetarian the underground of offshore.  She can grow up to 75 cm.

Taking away of shells, corals as well as specific mussels through tourists is not allowed by  Philippine protective  export regulations.

The visitor of the Philippines has a higher chance to see sea turtles caught in tanks as by observation in free nature. We do not want to remind here  the consumption of certain   house pets  in the Philippines and we do not consider the aspects of  cock-fighting. But the idea of animal protection and conservation of nature needs more educational and propaganda campaigning in the Philippines. More than first attempts are already done.


© Wolfgang Bethge