Wild sea cucumber – taste the difference

29 Nov 2021

Beche-de-mer or wild sea cucumber are Old Boy James Parfitt’s business – and the Chinese can’t get enough of them.

There, they are consumed in hundreds of different ways – in congee, soup, stir-fry, sashimi, and as a functional food for health and beauty.

“The Chinese have been eating them for marine collagen long before the Kardashians have,”

says James (11780), founder and CEO of New Zealand Wild Catch.

He set the process in motion by moving to Shanghai in 2006 with a one-way ticket, a map, and an airline carry-on bag. He had learnt Mandarin Chinese while working in Sydney for a Swiss pharmaceutical company, studied it further at Shanghai Jiaotong University, and eventually worked as the only Westerner for a Taiwanese clinical research organisation.

“At the time, I noticed how widespread sea cucumber was as a traditional medicine and as a delicacy. In China, it’s farmed. I’d seen it in New Zealand while diving and knew that we had a wild species here and that wild sea cucumber was preferred to farmed varieties.”

So began a decade-long process conducted in two countries – in two languages – to establish and commercialise the business and products.

“We were regularly told by both Kiwis and Chinese that our sea cucumber wouldn’t sell,” he says. “For the first few years, only 5–10% of our harvest made it to the processing stage. No importers would work with us because there was no China ‘import history’ for the species.”

Finally, an order was secured with a Shanghai supermarket and the rest is history.

The beche-de-mer from New Zealand – in all the many product forms – are now widely distributed in China, where, James says, “our dried, golden-coloured sea cucumber is one of New Zealand’s iconic luxury seafoods”.

Harvested from the inshore waters of the South Island, the wild sea cucumbers are brought to an export processing factory in Christchurch, where they are dehydrated in multiple steps by controlling time, humidity, temperature, and water activity.

The former Julius House boy (1994–98) knew he had achieved what he set out to when he was named a finalist in the 2021 EY Entrepreneur of the Year (New Zealand). New Zealand Wild Catch has also been named as a finalist in the HSBC NZCTA China Business Awards.

However, James, 40, says his biggest highlight “was seeing the wild New Zealand gold tip sea cucumber being enjoyed in China after all of the setbacks we faced early on in the business”.

James describes the business as “an added-value seafood company predominantly focused on the sustainable harvesting, processing, export and distribution of wild New Zealand gold tip sea cucumber products”.

NZ Wild Catch now owns most of the gold tip sea cucumber fisheries quota in New Zealand, processing the catch using proprietary techniques developed by combining traditional Asian processing methods with advanced technology. The company’s future focus is on more fisheries research work with NIWA and other partners in the science community.

“We would also like to see Chairman Xi Jinping try our sea cucumber next time he visits New Zealand, or Prime Minister Ardern visits China. We think it is a more appropriate gift than a black rugby jersey.”