"The Ugliest thing you ever laid eyes on"

Historians Learn about Processing Sea Cucumber

By Terry Hussey

A last minutes change of program made Drusilla (Doodie) Ray the speaker at the September 12 meeting of the Milbridge Historical Society. She arrived at the meeting with take-out tubs of steaming hot food, that everyone assumed was deep fried clams. Folks had been enjoying them for several minutes when Doodie informed they were enjoying sea cucumbers.

Doodie told those assembled that she and her husband started their sea cucumber processing business in late 1995. She said they had operated a sea urchin business prior to that, but the species was rapidly becoming depleted. They sought out an under-utilized species. "Five other companies in Maine had tried processing cucumbers and failed. One had failed four times," said Ray.

"We built the factory, and immediately ran into our first obstacle: we couldn’t find enough local laborers to work," she said. "With difficulty they found enough people to get started. It took about two years to develop our markets," said Ray. "Today we have 80-90 workers, with markets mostly in Hong Kong, China, and Japan."

"A sea cucumber is the ugliest thing you’ve ever laid eyes on," said Ray. They are harvested by draggers. "They are very, very wierd animals," she said. "They can squeeze into a ball the size of your fist, or stretch out so long and thin they can go through a nail hole. Their skin is slimy, leathery feeling, in tones of black and dark green." Ray said that when cucumbers feed, one side of the creature flowers open like a blossom of brilliant colors.

Ray said that scientists don’t know too much about cucumbers or their life cycle. They don’t appear to have any predators, except man. In many parts of the world, they have become depleted from over-harvesting. There are 1,000 varieties of cucumbers around the world; the variety that lives in the North Atlantic is one of the least favored because of its coloring.

"In California, fishermen get $1.65 a pound for them; our boats get five cents a pound," she said. Ray said that her plant is supplied with urchins by 15 boats with daggers. She said that a tote holding about 150 pounds of cucumbers would yield about seven pounds of meat and three pounds of skin. "There’s an awful lot of waste," said Ray.

Ray said that in the processing plant workers hold the cucumber with a vice grip and cut the end off, then slice down the middle. They then clamp the body to a board and use a scrub brush to clean out the intestines. Finally, using a mortar trowel, they scrape the muscle away from the skin. Ray said that the work is labor-intensive and very messy.

The "meat" of the cucumber is the muscle tissue. The meat is inspected by another worker, then vacuum sealed in a bag and fast frozen. The food produced from the North Atlantic species is called "coral clams" in China because of its coral color.

"The skin is marketable too," said Ray. They put the skin into a dehydration machine that removes 93% of the water content. The skin is further processed and turned into pills, which are taken for relief from the symptoms of arthritis.

"We have customers in Vancouver, San Francisco, New York, New Jersey, Massachusetts, and Taiwan. 90% are exported," she said. "It’s a very healthy food," said Ray. "It’s 97% protein."

Ray said that a great deal of research is underway to find out more about the possible uses of cucumber products. She said some is being tested for use in cancer treatment. "We’re trying to find a way to remove the oil from the water that results when we cook them," said Ray. "The Russians want all the oil we can get for them." When asked what they wanted to use it for, she said, "We don’t know."

Ray said that she had been working with state marine resource officials for two years, trying to prevent depletion of the species, as happened with urchins. She said after there was some gear conflict issues with lobster traps, the state closed the cucumber fishery for three months, July through September.

Ray spoke about the many Hispanic employees that her company has hired. "They are people who really want to work," she said. "They don’t like to have a day off or a half day closure. They wanted us to open the plant at 3 A.M. to start their work day. We had to compromise and start work at 5 A.M."

Ray said that workers are paid $6 an hour until they get up to speed on what they are doing. Then they are paid at piece rate. A good worker can make $18 an hour. She said that two Hispanic families that work for her have incomes of around $50,000 a year.

Most of Ray’s employees come from Mexico, Honduras, and Guatamala. She said that when they first came to Maine to work they knew no English at all, but that most have learned it quickly. Ray has learned enough Spanish to communicate with them and to help her workers with things like getting driver’s licenses, medical care, and even giving birth to new babies. She said that she’s proud to report that a second worker from her plant will become a naturalized citizen this week.