Prince Edward Island

Former fisherman 'milking' starfish for use in cosmetics

Starfish returned to the sea unharmed after having fluid extracted, says harvester

June 06, 2018

Adrian Wedge lines up a tank-load of 500 living starfish. (Brian Higgins/CBC)

Stephen Stewart begins his day at Tracadie wharf delving deeper into the unique endeavour he's been working on since the spring.

The former mussel fisherman travels from port to port these days, collecting fluid from starfish for the cosmetics industry.

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"If they lose an arm, they grow a new one. If you break a starfish in two, it becomes two starfish. So it's all about the regeneration fluid that's inside the starfish," he explained.

After he's done, the five-armed echinoderms are returned to the ocean.

"One of the growers told me he feels like a dairy farmer," said Stewart. "He watched them being milked. It felt like they were his, only now they're back in the wild."

Out and then back in again

Stewart's workspace is housed inside a mobile trailer. His staff gently transfer the starfish from saltwater holding tanks, onto a wide conveyor belt, and into the stainless-steel extraction equipment. 

Unlike humans, starfish or sea stars don't have blood to carry nutrients and dissolved gases through their body. Instead, coelomic fluid that's primarily comprised of sea water does the job. 

It's this fluid that scientists are studying in the hopes of learning more about the creatures incredible ability to regenerate their limbs

Stephen Stewart runs the starfish milking operation. (Brian Higgins/CBC)

The gear gently holds the starfish vertical, as some of its body fluids drip into a collecting tray. The clear fluid is triple filtered, then frozen and shipped to Quebec for processing. The starfish are returned to salt water.

​"You take a little fluid out of them. They go back out in the water. It's only a matter of days and they're back 100 per cent again," said Stewart.

Gravity does the work. The fluid that drips from the starfish is used to make cosmetics. (Brian Higgins/CBC)

Starfish are considered a pest to P.E.I.'s multi-million dollar mussel industry. They are predators of shellfish that attack and eat cultured mussels.

Fishermen routinely find starfish clinging to their mussel lines when they are hoisted from the water for harvest.

P.E.I. sole supplier

P.E.I. is the sole supplier of starfish fluid to the Quebec company that uses it in cosmetics.

"P.E.I. is a leader in the mussel industry," said Patrice Dionne, chief executive officer of Innovactiv, based in Rimouski, Que. "We are just at the beginning of something that we think can be very big."

The company is marketing their cosmetic ingredient under their brand name "Juventide," which it says can be used in anti-aging makeup and skin care. 

Holland College student Moni Idowu places starfish in the milking line. (Brian Higgins/CBC)

The equipment Stewart uses keeps count of each and every starfish that comes down the line. He's aiming to milk 100,000 before the season's out. Because they're returned to the ocean, there's a chance some of his starfish may be back on the line next year.

"We thought we'd try marking some, to see," said Stewart. "But there's millions out there."

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Brian Higgins

Brian Higgins is a CBC videojournalist on Prince Edward Island.

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