Olango Island Starfish Trade

Cebu, Philippines

I was doing some research recently and decided to see what the small island of Olango had to offer because of its proximity to Cebu. I knew the island had a bird sanctuary that is a popular birding destination, but I wanted to see what else the island might have to explore. While searching through some photos I noticed one image of a women standing next to a giant pile of starfish. The image was striking to me because I had never seen so many dead starfish before. I started to dig a little deeper and was able to find that one barangay in Olango island is known to export seastars, shells, urchins and sand dollars. I decided to go and have a look because I couldn’t believe that starfish in this amount could be harvested and sold. For what? I was thinking.

When I arrived to Olango I asked the motorcycle driver if he know of anyone selling starfish in barangay San Vicente. He nodded his head and drove me about 10 minutes to the other side of the island. He pulled up to a few men sitting on the side of the road and asked them where we could buy starfish. One of the men, Ronel, instantly said “you want to buy starfish?” I told him I was just looking to see where they were sold and I’d like to possibly take some photos. He brought me behind a few houses and then we entered into somewhat of a large courtyard with thousands of bleached starfish drying in the sun. Some of the workers toured me around the area and showed me their finished product with hopes that I was going to make a purchase. I told them I would just like to take some pictures of them working and they didn’t seem to have a problem with that.

After spending a few hours photographing the workers I was asked by the manager to leave. It wasn’t exactly clear why I was asked to leave, but she said I was taking too long to get my pictures. I thought this to be a bit unusual seeing that I had spent the last three hours there and bought all the workers a snack. Perhaps the manager realized that I may use the photos against this industry or maybe there was no reason behind it at all and she just wanted me to go.

The collection and selling of starfish and other marine life in Olango is actually not illegal, which I found saddening. It is only illegal for certain species, but its hard to imagine that this is enforced. After I was asked to leave from the starfish processing area I was brought to another mans house who had a collection of sand dollars, sea urchins and shells. This man asked me to wait and then brought out a small white box. He opened it and there was one murex shell inside which I know is illegal. The man told me that the Korean and Japanese tourists will pay over 5,000 pesos (over $100) for that shell.

There was a recent article I came across of some starfish being seized here in Cebu because the owner did not have the proper permit. You can see the short article HERE. There is another article I came accross as well about cracking down on the trade of shells here in Cebu HERE. Maybe this is a sign that law enforcement is keeping their eyes open for illegal marine products. I do know though that here in the Philippines, if there is money to be made with something, someone will figure out a way to pay off the right people in order for it to be sold.

Most of starfish, sand dollars and shells in Olango are either collected locally or brought in from surrounding islands. The starfish and sand dollars are typically bleached to remove their natural color and smell. Some of them are then dyed bright gaudy colors such as hot pink and orange, others are left white. After the products are finished being processed they are exported to Korea, the United States, Australia and Japan primarily for home decors.

I did make it back to Olango a second day where I was able to photograph Rolando collecting some starfish (the second photo above). Although many of the marine products are collected from surrounding islands, locals still collect some in Olango. I was told they are given two pesos per starfish, depending on it’s size and variety of course.

The starfish dry out in the sun after they have been bleached to rid them of their natural color.

Children watch as their mothers clean sea urchins which will eventually be exported. The purple color you see is from the dye used to color the starfish.

Arranging the bleached starfish on large plastic sheets allowing them to dry in the sun.

A women adding a sticker to each starfish as some type of label. It was never fully explained to me what the purpose of this was. This is the last step in the process before the starfish are packaged for export.

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Tagged: cebu, conservation, documentary, industry, Marine, Olango Island, philippines, photographer, photography, photos, pictures, starfish, Travel,
Posted on: Jul 12, 2011

  • Norman Mabborang

    Great photos!

  • Jen

    Wow, Jake. Do you know if they are shipped to the US? I often wondered how harvesting so many of these animals wasn’t illegal. Great photos. Hope you are well:)

    • Hey Jen, it’s good to hear from you. Yeah I’m pretty sure some of them are exported to the US. I believe this is one of the companies buying: http://www.shellhorizons.com/. It’s crazy looking through their website seeing the types of marine products they are able to sell.

  • Jen

    Wow, Jake. Do you know if they are shipped to the US? I often wondered how harvesting so many of these animals wasn’t illegal. Great photos. Hope you are well:)

  • invmatrix

    Another sad story =( Great shots Jacob!

  • Khennjo

    Hi Jacob, I stumbled across your blog while doing a search for Olango Island. It’s disheartening how people (and the government) can look away at the blatant exploitation of the environment. Loved how you documented this. Just wished that they’ll soon realize that they can’t always take from nature… Excellent photos!
    By the way, what camera casing did you use for your camera?
    Thanks and keep on shooting!

    • Hi Khennjo..Yeah it’s pretty sad seeing how we exploit our marine resources. This is just one of so many examples of how we neglect our environment — that which provides us with all of our human needs. I wrote a small guest blog post about what gear I’m using to take underwater photos: http://www.lightstalking.com/underwater-images-on-a-budget . Hope that helps you out some.

  • browsed some of your images in my home country and I love it….keep sharing and feel free to visit my blogs also….how i miss phils…wishing you a a safe and sound trip always!

  • added your site in my fave list!

  • added your site in my fave list!

  • Tim

    Hi Jacob, stunning images! I’d just like to ask what set-up you use for those underwater shots? Thanks very much!

  • Tim

    Hi Jacob, stunning images! I’d just like to ask what set-up you use for those underwater shots? Thanks very much!

  • Susil Ligutan

    Another set of great photos Jacob and I have learned yet another new thing. I didn’t even know starfishes are harvested, bleached and exported at those volume. 🙁

  • brench

    nice shots 🙂

  • Sandy

    Thank you for doing the research–great job! My question is–is it legal to import the bleached starfish into the US? I live on the east coast and see them in shops fairly often. It’s very sad.

    • Hi Sandy, I believe the trade to the States is legal for starfish. However, most people are unaware of how these starfish are harvested. There are certain species that are threatened which are illegal to trade (certain shells, etc. ). Nonetheless, it’s sad to see our marine resources exploited like this so someone can place a bleached starfish in their home.

  • Kirsten Rickert

    Thank you so much for this wonderful post. I hate seeing dead bleached starfish in homes and your research validates all my feelings. So sad that people exploit the ocean and the natural treasures in it. Beautiful photos! You are awesome!

  • Jesse Curtis

    My daughters and I were curious about where these products came from and found your site. It’s a sad situation either way. They decimate the sea creature population but without this trade what would these people do instead? Thanks for the info and photos

  • Rubi de la Cruz

    How many star fish have they collected given that this article is already 5 years ago and it continuously happening? OMG

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