Animals -> Marine Invertebrates -> Echinoderms -> Sea Cucumbers

Sea Cucumbers

Coastal cultures reportedly supplemented their diets with sea cucumbers [1, 2]. This included the Nootka (Nuu-chah-nulth) – Central, North, and Vancouver Island, Manhousat and people at Port Simpson (Tsimshian) [3-5]. Sea cucumbers were readily available for the Coast Salish and Manhousat [6-8]. Although the Southeast Alaskan cultures relished sea cucumbers, they were not accessible to all villages [9]. The Belcher Islands were rich with sea cucumbers and provided Quebec Inuit, with an important traditional food [10, 11]. Sea cucumbers were known as 7lats to the Nuxalk, taa7inwa to the Manhousat, and the Nootka called them tainuh [8, 12-15].

Women collected sea cucumber by hand from rocks or flat beaches at low tide [13, 16]. A long stick with a short ledge was used to gather them on steeper shores, a task that had to be performed quickly before the sea cucumbers curled into balls and rolled back into the water [3, 8].

The Manhousat and Nootka of Vancouver Island enjoyed eating raw sea cucumbers, beginning with the head. The Manhousat also ate the body raw while the Nootka first boiled it [3, 8]. The Manhousat used an elaborate method to clean groups of sea cucumbers by stringing them on flexible sticks and scraping them all at once on rocks and barnacles until the bodies were rigid. They were then cut off the branch and boiled [8]. The Coast Salish removed the head and intestines, and sometimes pounded the bodies before boiling, steaming or roasting them [16, 17]. The people at Port Simpson boiled and skinned sea cucumbers after cleaning them. Due to the great availability and simple acquisition of sea cucumbers there was no need to store them. The people at Port Simpson believed that eating sea cucumbers would make them lethargic when they were young, therefore only the elderly tended to enjoy them [5].

The Kwakiutl (Kwakwaka'wakw) are reported to have eaten sea slugs in winter. This report might involve sea cucumbers, which are sometimes referred to as sea slugs. Kwakiutl were reported to collect them when the day was calm and there was a low tide. A canoe was used to travel to regions where sea slugs were known to be on the ocean floor and a special shaft with a few short wooden prongs attached at the end was used to pull them up into the canoe. The head was cut off and the insides squeezed. When the canoe was full, he returned to the shore where his wife would squeeze out the insides from tip to end a second time and place them in a basket. The slugs were soaked in clean water for two nights. The water was again squeezed out, and they were added to boiling water along with hemlock branches and handfuls of dirt from the floor of the house. The dirt was said to prevent the kettle of sea slugs from boiling over. They were sufficiently cooked when they could be pinched with a tong without slipping away. They could also be roasted in a fire while turning them often. Once the sea slug was stiff it was put into fresh water and the ashes were scraped off. Sea slugs could also be baked by digging a hole in the ashes of a fire, laying them in the hole and covering for thirty minutes. As the slugs were prepared they were given to the guests until they were satisfied, the remainder were then given to the women [18].

Most ethnographic literature does not specify which species of sea cucumber were harvested, but the giant California sea cucumber is a large, widespread species that was widely used by West Coast groups [1-5] and is now commercially harvested [19]. According to Coast Salish mythology, the giant California sea cucumber represents Minx’s grandmother who was accidentally killed by the Wolf people [17].


1.         Stephenson PH, Elliot SJ, Foster LT, Harris J: A persistent spirit: towards understanding Aboriginal health in British Columbia. In. Edited by Stephenson PH, Elliot SJ, Foster LT, Harris J, vol. 1. Victoria: Department of Geography, University of Victoria; 1995.

2.         Hill-Tout C: Food and Cooking. In: British North America: The Far West, the Home of the Salish and Dene. edn. Edited by Hill-Tout C. London: Archibald Constable; 1907: 89-108.

3.         Arima EY: The West Coast People: The Nootka of Vancouver Island and Cape Flattery, vol. Special Publication No. 6. Victoria, B.C.: British Columbia Provincial Musem; 1983.

4.         Arima E, Dewhirst J: Nootkans of Vancouver Island. In: Handbook of North American Indians, Volume 7: Northwest Coast. edn. Edited by Suttles W. Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution; 1990: 391-397.

5.         Port Simpson Curriculum Committee: Port Simpson Foods: A Curriculum Development Project. In. Prince Rupert: The People of Port Simpson and School District No. 52; 1983.

6.         Kennedy DID, Bouchard RT: Northern Coast Salish. In: Handbook of North American Indians, Volume 7: Northwest Coast. edn. Edited by Suttles W. Washington, DC: 1990; 1990: 441-445.

7.         Batdorf C: Northwest Native Harvest. Surrey, B.C: Hancock House Publishers Ltd.; 1990.

8.         Ellis DW, Swan L: Teachings of The Tides: Uses of Marine Invertebrates By The Manhousat People, vol. 1st edition. Nanaimo, B.C.: Theytus Books Ltd.; 1981.

9.         Jacobs M, Jr., Jacobs M, Sr.: Southeast Alaska Native Foods. In: Raveu's Bones. edn. Edited by Hope A; 1982: 112-130.

10.       D'Anglure BS: Inuit of Quebec. In: Handbook of North American Indians, Volume 5: Arctic. edn. Edited by Damas D. Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution; 1984: 477-498.

11.       Wein EE, Freeman MMR, Makus JC: Use of and preference for traditional foods among the Belcher Island Inuit. Arctic 1996, 49 (3):256-264.

12.       Thommesen H: Telling Time With Shadows: The Old Indian Ways. In: Bella Coola Man: More Stories of Clayton Mack. edn. Edited by Thommasen H. Madeira Park, B.C: Harbour Publishing; 1994: 24-45.

13.       Drucker P: The Northern and Central Nootkan tribes. Washington,D.C.: Government Printing Office; 1951.

14.       Kuhnlein HV: Traditional and Contemporary Nuxalk Foods. Nutrition Research 1984, 4:789-809.

15.       The Nuxalk Food and Nutrition Program Staff: Nuxalk Food and Nutrition Handbook - A Practical Guide to Family Foods and Nutrition Using Native Foods; 1984.

16.       Suttles WP: Coast Salish and Western Washington Indians. In: Coast Salish and Western Washington Indians The Economic Life of the Coast Salish of Haro and Rosario Straits. edn. New York & London: Garland Publishing Inc.; 1974.

17.       Bouchard R, Kennedy DID: Utilization of fishes, beach foods, and marine mammals by the Tl'uhus Indian People of British Columbia. In.: British Columbia Indian Language Project; 1974.

18.       Boas F: Ethnology of The Kwakiutl-Based on Data Collected By George Hunt (Part I), vol. Smithsonian Institution Bureau of American Ethnology. Thirty-Fifth Annual Report. Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office; 1921.

19.       Twomey M, Brodte E, Jacob U, Brose U, Crowe TP, Emmerson MC: Idiosyncratic species effects confound size-based predictions of responses to climate change. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B-Biological Sciences 2012, 367(1605):2971-2978.

Sea cucumbers include around 500 species worldwide. In North America, sea cucumbers include the giant California sea cucumber (Parastichopus californicus) found only along the Pacific coast, from the Gulf of Alaska to southern California. Sea cucumbers are called concombres de mer in French.

Sea cucumbers are long, tube-like, and have no arm. Unlike other echinoderms, they have a reduced calcareous endoskeleton, usually lacking spine, giving them a flexible body, and a leathery body wall. The giant California sea cucumber can grow quite big, reaching up to 50 cm long and 5 cm wide.

Most sea cucumbers creep slowly along the seabed using their tube feet, but others are burrowers. Some sea cucumbers are deposit feeders using their tentacled tube feet to scrape off the substrate for detritus, while others are suspension feeders using their tube feet to collect food particles that are suspended in the water. Like in other echinoderms, most sea cucumbers have separate sexes, but some species are hermaphrodite, and fertilization is external.


Campbell A: "Spiny-skinned Invertebrates". In: The Encyclopedia of Underwater Life. Edited by Dawes ACJ: Oxford University Press; 2007.


Images provided below were obtained from: Encyclopedia of Life. Available from
Giant California sea cucumber
© Ken-ichi Ueda, licensed under a Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike License license:
This map is based on occurrence records available through the GBIF network