SITKA - Sitka fourth-graders Maggie Dunlap and Esther Bower braved the wind and rain at Sandy Beach on a recent afternoon to take turns pounding a new sign into the ground.
"Please don't take the live sand dollars," the sign says.
Maggie, 9, and Esther, 10, made the sign after becoming concerned that sand dollars may be disappearing from the last beach in the Sitka area with a large population of the intertidal creatures.
"Mainly, I think the reason we did it is people are taking just buckets full of sand dollars and taking them and bleaching them and selling them to tourists, and it's not good," Esther said.
"It's sort of like a privilege to have sand dollars on our beach, 'cause all the other beaches around Sitka don't have them," she added. "If people keep taking them we're not going to have them anymore."
The state Department of Fish and Game agrees with that assessment.
Bill Davidson, a department biologist, said he was unaware that people were collecting sand dollars from the state-owned beach to sell to tourists, which is illegal.
"To harvest and sell something commercially is going to be the end of sand dollar collecting," Davidson said. "Selling them to tourists is a commercial activity. It's not something we would want to allow even if people asked us.
"With one small beach and thousands and thousands of tourists coming to town the demand is probably more than that beach can supply."
Small-scale sand dollar collecting can be considered beachcombing, and is not a problem, he said.
Maggie and Esther said they have long been concerned about the quantities of sand dollars they have seen people taking from Sandy Beach, but it was not until the Greenpeace ship M/V Esperanza came to Sitka last month that they decided to take action.
The girls said they toured the Esperanza and met with Greenpeace crew member Phil Lloyd, who helped them develop a strategy for saving the sand dollars.
"He just sort of talked to us and wanted to know what we thought of this," Maggie said.
He suggested that the girls do some research on sand dollars and come up with ideas for alternative souvenirs to sell to tourists that would have less effect on local natural resources.
From their research at Kettleson Memorial Library, the girls concluded that the ones on Sandy Beach are either common sand dollars or "eccentric" sand dollars.
Through their reading they found that sand dollars are related to sea urchins, and they learned the way to tell a live sand dollar from a dead one.
"The live ones are in the sand, and they stick up," Esther said. "Dead ones lie on the top of the sand."
The girls said they may use research to create a brochure to distribute to Sitkans and tourists, and they may give presentations in their school, Keet Gooshi Heen, before the annual Sea Week in May.
Since collecting sand dollars is common during Sea Week, the girls said they would like other students to be able to distinguish between live and dead sand dollars, so the live ones can be left on the beach.
The girls have also used their research to create an "eco-friendly" sand dollar made out of clay, which they think may be an alternative for tourists.
Davidson said he doesn't know whether the sand dollar population on Sandy Beach is decreasing. The girls have sparked his interest in the subject, and his agency may do a survey next spring.