UBC Reports | Vol. 50 | No. 6 |
Jun. 3, 2004
Saving the Sea Star
Dead sea creatures a popular souvenir
By Michelle Cook
Dried starfish candleholders. Toy cars sporting sea urchin
wheels. Sand dollar necklace pendants. Souvenirs crafted from
dead sea life have become such a ubiquitous part of the scenery
in tropical resorts, it’s easy to forget that these
curios were once living animals.
In a new exhibit opening this month, Chicago’s Shedd
Aquarium hopes to raise public awareness of the issue using
research conducted by Project Seahorse, an international marine
conservation and research organization based at UBC.
Project Seahorse’s contribution to the “Sea Star
Quest” exhibit comes in the form of a survey of the
Mexican echinoderm trade, which includes sea stars -- more
popularly known as starfish -- as well as sea urchins, sand
dollars, and heart urchins. More than 1,500 different species
of these live in tidal waters worldwide but little is known
about the global trade in sea stars or urchins for use as
Drawing on her previous experience as a trade surveyor in
southeast Asia, Project Seahorse researcher Kristin Lunn traveled
to Mexico in February to interview fishers, distributors and
retailers in several of Mexico’s key resort areas including
Mazatlan, Puerto Vallarta, Cancun and Cozumel.
“We had this idea that sea stars were being taken for
the curiosity trade but we didn’t have any idea how
many were being traded and what that would mean for wild populations,”
With almost no records available to work from, Lunn’s
goal was to gather information on the structure of the Mexican
trade in echinoderms including the types of fisheries involved,
the volume and types of species being caught, the main trade
centres, the value of the industry and trade regulations.
Mexico was chosen for the survey because it is known to be
a major exporter of shell products and because of its huge
Lunn and research assistant Maria José Villanueva
Noriega from the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México
spent a month interviewing almost 100 people involved in various
aspects of the echinoderm trade along Mexico’s Pacific
and Caribbean coasts, where collecting is typically done by
hand in shallow waters.
The interviews provided the first large-scale look at the
Mexican industry. There are currently an estimated 62 sea
star fishers nationwide supplying the curio industry. Those
fishers are each collecting an average of 12,000 sea stars
annually. The survey reports nine sea urchin fishers each
collecting about 6,800 sea urchins annually for use as curios.
At least 200 retail stores in major tourist centres sell sea
stars or sea urchins individually or as part of other shell
In the survey’s other main findings, fishers’
opinions were split on whether sea star stocks were in decline.
Lunn also found that many retailers didn’t know or weren’t
interested in where their stocks of marine animals had come
“When asking retailers about their sources, I had a
lot of people telling me that their animals had come from
the Philippines, when those species aren’t found in
the Philippines,” Lunn says.
“By the time it has moved up the chain, there is a
detachment between where the animal came from and what you’re
selling it as. It’s not treated much differently than
a plastic sea star.”
Lunn stresses that the survey is only a preliminary one but
it gives researchers a good base to conduct further studies
on the potential impacts of the sea star curio trade. She
hopes the research Project Seahorse has contributed to the
Shedd Aquarium exhibit will make people think carefully about
the souvenirs they see on offer at their next tropical vacation
“The souvenir trade is one where you can directly reach
a consumer audience and have it make a difference because
this is not sea life that people have to catch -- it’s
not medicine and it’s not a food fishery. At the same
time, some people do depend on this trade for full-time employment
and we have to consider that as well.
“I think that people are really detached from where
these curios came from and I think that is what Shedd is trying
to get across with the exhibit -- that these are wild animals
and that you could be having an impact on wild populations
when you buy them.”
The Shedd Aquarium’s Sea Star Quest runs from June
17, 2004 - January 9, 2005. For more information, visit www.sheddnet.org.
For more information on Project Seahorse, visit www.projectseahorse.org.