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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 souvenirs.

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,” Lunn says.

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 tourism industry.

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 crafts.

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 from.

“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 destination.

“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.

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Last reviewed 22-Sep-2006

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