Sifting for stars

By Danika Kleiber

Kids gleaning.  Photo: Danika Kleiber/Project Seahorse

Kids gleaning. Photo: Danika Kleiber/Project Seahorse

I watched the boy comb the stubbly seaweed with his fingers. Absurdly I thought of a gold prospector sifting sand for nuggets. He was crouched in the intertidal flats at low tide, where the water was just high enough to cover his toes. I then noticed that there were others crouched next to him and they were all using the same careful sweeping and sifting motions. I knew they were gleaning but this wasn’t a type of gleaning I’d see before. I had just put a GPS unit on a volunteer and she was walking around the tidal flat with slow hunched purpose. This boy, and what I assumed to be his family, were motionless apart from their arms and hands. Sifting, sifting, searching.

I walked over slowly and peeked into the small plastic container the boy was using to put his catch in. I was expecting shells, but instead I saw stars. What seemed like hundreds of tiny little sea stars. It was strangely beautiful to see them clumped up like that but also a little alarming. I turned to Jay and asked what they were going to do with them. My mind ran with visions of sea star stew, which didn’t seem likely or appetizing. Jay explained that they would be dried and made into earrings. That made a lot more sense. Not food then, instead they were gleaning for curios.

Curio is that strange ‘other’ category in the trade of marine animals. I remember learning about it when I was editing seahorse trade papers. Most seahorses are used for traditional Chinese medicine, but a significant amount are also used to lend a bit of interest to a yo-yo or a keychain or even a toilet seat. Like seahorses, these sea stars are a beautiful shape and I could imagine how they would appeal as a pair of earrings. But it made me reflect how as a western consumer I am so often cut off from the chain of production. Next time I see a curio in a shop I’m sure I will imagine this little boy and his family sifting the seashore.