Alaska’s sea cucumbers show promise fighting cancer

Alaska sea cucumber divers may help cure cancer.

Sea cucumber meat and skins have long been considered a delicacy in Asian cuisines; some believe it can sooth sore joints and arthritis pain. Most recently, the soft, tubular bottom dwellers are being added to the list of foods that may kill cancer cells.

Dried sea cucumber or extract is antiviral, antibacterial and anti-inflammatory, said Ty Bollinger, the author of "Cancer: Step Outside the Box."

"Sea cucumbers are very high in chondroitin sulfate, commonly used to treat joint pain and arthritis. To my knowledge, they have the highest concentrations of any animal," Bollinger said in an interview, adding that scientists have studied the echinoderms for more than 15 years.

"They have properties that are cytotoxic, meaning they kill cancer cells, and that also help stimulate your immune system. The sea cucumber does both," Bollinger added.

Cuke extracts have demonstrated some ability to kill lung, breast, prostate, skin, colon, pancreatic and liver cancer cells, added Ethan Evers, author of "The Eden Prescription."

While sea cucumber capsules, powders and liquids can be bought over the pharmacy counter, Bollinger said you won't see cancer credentials on the packaging because the claims have not been verified by federal health agencies.


A scan of online retail shelves shows a mix of products and sizes selling for $20 to $40. Alaska Wild Caught Sun Dried Red Sea Cucumbers are priced at $75 to $145 per pound. Cukes sold to food markets fetch $25 to $110 per pound.

[Underwater research in Alaska to count sea cucumbers]

Nearly 1,700 species of sea cucumbers live in the world's oceans, mostly harvested by divers. Starting Oct. 1, up to 200 Alaska divers will be seeking the red variety that thrives in Southeast waters. The animals, which can grow to 20 inches and weigh just over a pound, typically produce a harvest that tops 1 million pounds.

Divers usually get more than $4 a pound for cukes, making the fishery worth nearly $5 million at the docks. It could be worth far more, but sea otters have devoured many sea cucumbers from the Panhandle's most abundant bays in recent years.

Count belugas

Citizen scientists and whale lovers are invited to help count belugas in Upper Cook Inlet. The first annual Belugas Count! will begin at 9 a.m. Saturday, Sept. 9, with shoreside counts from 12 stations in Turnagain and Knik Arm using binoculars and aerial survey videos. From noon to 5 p.m., the Alaska Zoo will feature beluga-related booths; the beluga tally will be announced at the end of the day.

[Beluga count details]

The free, all-day event is a collaboration between federal and state agencies and organizations to bring more awareness to endangered beluga whales.

"Belugas are a big part of what makes Cook Inlet a special place, but they need our help," said Jim Balsiger, head of NOAA Fisheries in Alaska. "This event is a great way for the public to get involved and support beluga whale conservation."

The Cook Inlet beluga population numbered around 1,300 in the 1970s but has dwindled to slightly more than 300 animals today, said Bob Shavelson of Cook Inletkeeper, the group that has been tracking belugas for federal overseers for a decade.

"They are not rebounding and we need to know what is going on," Shavelson said. "We've seen virtually no change in industrial activity in Upper Cook Inlet as a result of the whales being placed on the endangered species list. The municipality of Anchorage is still dumping up to 30 million gallons a day of treated sewage into beluga habitat."

Fish funds

The national Saltonstall Kennedy grant competition — ongoing since 1954 — is calling for advance proposals that focus on the U.S. fishing industry. The money — about $145 million most years — comes from a tax paid to the U.S. Customs Service on seafood imports. About $12 million will fund grants ranging from $25,000 to $300,000 that cover two years.

The program, always popular with academic and state applicants, is trying to broaden its reach, said Dan Namur, director of external funding for NOAA Fisheries.

"Over the past two years, we've tried to open the door and make it more accessible," Namur said during an outreach trip to Alaska. "We're really seeking applications that … have a lot of involvement from fishing communities."

Alaska received more than $1.5 million in Saltonstall Kennedy grants last year, primarily for fishery data collection projects.

The call is for two-page proposals that focus on four areas, including marine aquaculture and seafood marketing.

"From marketing existing fisheries to developing new markets for a fish that is underutilized, as well as branching out into areas that we're not tapping as well as we could," Namur said.

Another funding target is environmental changes and long-term impacts on fishing communities, both physical changes in the environment and socioeconomic impacts on communities and the individuals who live on the waterfront, he said.


A fourth grant priority is territorial science.

"We're looking for better information for data-poor areas," Namur said. "One of the things we found in our territories, whether in the western Pacific or the Caribbean, we need better data to make solid management decisions."

The deadline is Oct. 10.

Video bling

The Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute is holding its first video contest to showcase the fishing life.

"Scenery and fishing is great but we also want to see more footage from processors and other parts of the industry," said Jeremy Woodward, ASMI communications director. "Alaska's seafood industry may start in the ocean and on the boats, but it ends at the plate. It would be great to capture some of that in the videos."

[Enter your videos]

Three winning videos up to five minutes long will be selected to be included in ASMI's promotional programs around the globe. Cash prizes are $1,500, $1,000 and $500. The deadline is Sept. 30.

Salmon surge

Alaska's total salmon catch has surpassed the preseason forecast of 204 million fish, topping 206 million salmon on Friday with some fishing continuing.

Laine Welch is a commercial fishing opinion columnist who lives in Kodiak. Reach her at

Laine Welch | Fish Factor

Laine Welch is a Kodiak-based journalist who writes a weekly column, Fish Factor, that appears in newspapers and websites around Alaska and nationally. Contact her at