SEA STAR WASTING DISEASE
In preparation for our 2015 exhibition "The Flowers Are Burning" we were in contact with several marine biologists, researchers, aquarium staff, and science writers in the spring of 2015. Daniela Ginta, freelance writer for Planet Experts, generously offered to write an article about Sea Star Wasting Disease (SSWD) for our exhibition. Here are some excerpts:
"Sea stars have been part of the tidal landscape since the beginning of time. Tide in or out, sea stars line rocks and seafloor to create a live painting that is constantly changing, only to reveal new facets of the rich marine life we often do not think enough about. And we do not think enough to understand the deep connection we have with ocean life.
"We are as healthy as our oceans are, and bound to thrive as part of our planet's complex ecosystem, as long as marine 'canaries' such as sea stars, are alive and well.
"Yet as of June 2013, sea stars have been subject to massive and mysterious die-offs. Described as 'Sea Star Wasting Syndrome' the disease that killed millions of sea stars of 20-plus species, has yet to be understood nor the exact cause found. A November 2014 study pointed to a virus which spreads within entire populations, called 'sea star associated denso-virus'
Recent, abnormally warm water temperatures in some areas along the West Coast are likely stressing sea stars and perhaps making them more susceptible to the syndrome. That seems to be only part of the answer to why sea stars are perishing. Scientists are still looking for answers. "The disappearance of sea stars influences other species as well. Fewer sea stars allow for sea urchins (some of their prey) to multiply and, in turn, munch on their preferred food, which is sea kelp. The cascade of events does not stop there, as kelp helps many species: sea otters wrap themselves in kelp at night to prevent drifting off at sea, and they wrap their babies, too, while they dive for food. Also, kelp help fish, young and mature ones as well, find shelter from predators."
Jessica Schultz, Research Coordinator at Vancouver Aquarium, corresponded with me on several occasions. She indicated that "SSWD is different from other environmental problems, because we don't know for sure what the links are between human action and this illness. For instance, climate change has a clear relationship to greenhouse gas emissions and clear consequences such as rising sea levels and drought. With SSWD, there are so many unknowns it is difficult to identify what changes in human behavior will have any specific positive outcomes.
HOWEVER, the global ecosystem is highly interconnected, and to date, this is the largest ever recorded incidence of marine disease in terms of mortality and geographic extent. Since many sea stars, particularly the sunflower and purple stars, are top predators in the invertebrate world, when that predator is removed or depleted, there are far-reaching changes in the marine community. In one study, urchin populations have increased, reducing kelp, which the urchins feed on.
Kelp provides food and shelter to spot prawns, which settle on kelp as juveniles, and as result we may see a decline in spot prawns, an important and popular fishery, with the sudden loss of so many sea stars. There is no way to know all the connections ahead of time, but everything in the ocean is connected in some way. We all draw a number of resources from the oceans, whether we live on the coast or inland, and protecting those resources means caring for the ecosystem as a whole."
When a large disturbance like this disease happens in nature, it is important to know how things were before the disturbance happened in order to understand the impact. People can help by supporting long-term ecosystem monitoring projects and the organizations that conduct them. Most importantly people should take action by endorsing government policies that support science."
This sentence bears repeating: people should take action by endorsing government policies that support science.
Nicolle Cann, Manager of Interpretive Delivery at Vancouver Aquarium, stressed the importance of public policy in relation to caring for the state of the ocean. We had a lively discussion about the importance of all citizens to take an active role in voting and holding elected officials accountable.
Nicole told me that people needed to ask the right questions to our politicians. I asked her "What are the best questions?" She laughed enthusiastically and replied "I love that! Tell people to ask politicians ' what matters to YOU about the ocean? What have you done in your political and personal life to address the issues related to ocean crises? What are you going to do about this issue if you are elected? What do you plan to do to keep my vote? ' We need to tell people to vote smart!"
Dr. Peter Raimondi, Professor of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology of the University of California at Santa Cruz is the Principal Investigator for the Rocky Intertidal Research Group, conducting long term monitoring on SSWD. I asked him his perspective on how people could get involved in helping the sea stars. He spoke enthusiastically about the results of citizen scientists that have provided a huge amount of extremely valuable information. They have helped scientists document the extent of the disease up and down the coast of North America.
Melissa Miner, Research Specialist and colleague of Dr. Raimondi, also spent a great deal of time speaking with me. Melissa conducts research as part of MARINe (Multi-Agency Rocky Intertidal Network) and witnessed first-hand the devastation of watching the sea stars dying when the outbreak first occurred. She said it was like a horror show to see them disintegrating. Even as she described the difficulty of seeing this, she left me with hope. A high influx of healthy juvenile sea stars have been observed. It is unknown if these juveniles can survive the disease, but there is hope that the populations can replenish, leading to a possible recovery of the sea stars.
It has been 10 years since the first outbreak in 2013 of the massive die-off of sea stars. We now have evidence that the densovirus that killed the sunflower sea stars, was greatly influenced by the overheating waters of the oceans, driven by climate change. The combination of ocean warming, pollution, sewage runoff and other human created influences made a toxic soup that the sea stars could not fight off the disease.
"The rolling tide of new disease outbreaks are affecting marine organisms around the world.....warmer and more polluted ocean waters are allowing many infectious pathogens to thrive while at the same time weakening marine creatures' abilities to withstand disease."
-Dr. Drew Harvell, Professor of Marine Ecology at Cornell University
Dr. Harvell has been studying ocean disease and conducting research for over 2 decades. Her new book,Ocean Outbreak: Confronting the Rising Tide of Marine Disease came out just months before the COVID-19 pandemic swept the globe. Her brilliant book is a chilling parallel between what is happening beneath the waves to what Dr. Harvell calls "the mighty sunflower sea stars" and what is now killing humans. Yet another instance of what happens to our oceans, happens to us...the interconnections are endless.
Sick sea stars continue to be found along the west coast. In some areas, the more common Ochre Sea Star, the 5 legged star most people are familiar with, has been making a comeback and are being found more readily along the West Coast. However, the Sunflower Sea Star has not been so lucky, and in some of the areas I used to visit and see hundreds of them in a day, are now all but extinct. Sadly, according to Dr. Harvell, "The sunflower star, once an abundant species is now locally extinct across much of it's natural range, from British Columbia to California."
It is still hoped that they will be able to rebound, but it isn’t likely they will ever be as abundant as they were prior to 2013 when the disease first began to decimate the population.
Let’s hope that the future brings us many more of these little ones pictured below, who will survive into adulthood and thrive.
Sea Star Wasting Disease: The Catastrophe Beneath the Waves, Ocean Conservancy Blog
'Is it too much to ask, to live in a world where our human gifts go toward the benefit of all? Where our daily activities contribute to the healing of the biosphere and the well-being of other people?"
-Charles Eisenstein "The More Beautiful World Our Hearts Know Is Possible"
-Compiled by Mary Kay Neumann
2015: I wish to acknowledge all the experts who contributed their time to educating us about the problems of Sea Star Wasting Syndrome. Thank you to Peter Raimondi and Melissa Miner at the University of California-Santa Cruz and Jessica Schultz and Nicolle Cann of the Vancouver Aquarium for speaking with me They provided clear answers and posed important questions about this very complex problem. I especially want to thank Daniela Ginta, science writer for Planet Experts, who offered to help make Sea Star Wasting Disease understandable to the general public. She generously donated her time to write an article specifically for our exhibition.
2020: I have had the great pleasure to be in touch with Dr. Drew Harvell, who authored Ocean Outbreak: Confronting the Rising Tide of Marine Disease. She has shared her thoughts about the future of the sunflower sea star and given me hope about their future. I want to thank her for her time, her passionate book and her ongoing essential research on Sea Star Wasting Disease and the health of their ecosystems.
We are all blessed to have such passionate, dedicated people who are working hard to save the sea stars.