Sunflower sea stars (commonly called starfish) are dying off by the millions on the Pacific Coast from Sea Star Wasting Disease. This is the largest marine disaster that has ever been recorded. This catastrophic event that has decimated many species of starfish and begun to affect other tidepool animals. Marine biologists have discovered a virus associated with the disease, is linked to increased heating of ocean temperatures. The enormous mortality rates have taken on epic proportions beginning in 2013.
Many sea stars are keystone species in the marine ecosystem, their behavior directly affects other species such as mussels, snails and urchins, and indirectly affects other species such as algae and prawns. Mass die-offs of sea stars can cause these other species to disappear in certain areas, and it can also affect some populations of kelp-dwelling fish that humans consume. Sea stars eat sea urchins, and without sea stars, urchin populations have exploded in some areas reducing the kelp beds, which provide food and shelter to an enormous variety of sea life.
Early on in the die-off process, leading scientists suspected environmental factors may have caused sea stars to be more susceptible to the densovirus that has infected the sea stars. Those factors include effects from climate change such as warming ocean waters and ocean acidification. In a new study, Dr. Drew Harvell, an ecologist and evolutionary biologist at Cornell University has concluded that several marine heatwaves have raised the water temperatures, creating a "perfect storm" for the sea stars. "Temperature is a big deal for the disease; infectious microbes do better in warmer temperatures", says Dr. Harvell. "The sea stars don't have a chance when it is warm".
Tide pools are in danger. The chain of life in the ocean is at risk. John Steinbeck said, "All things are one thing and that one thing is all things…plankton, a shimmering phosphorescence on the sea and the spinning planets and expanding universe, all bound together by the elastic string of time. It is advisable to look from the tide pool to the stars and back to the tidep ool again.”
There has recently been a glimmer of hope, as large numbers of juveniles have been found in a few areas where the adult sea star population was severely diminished. There is guarded optimism in the scientific community that the young might survive and help lead to population recovery.
My melting sea star paintings are dedicated to the beautiful sunflower sea stars that have died and to their delicate and imperiled ecosystem. I hope to inspire the viewer to look to the natural world for what you love. What do you miss that you used to see that is no longer in abundance? The whippoorwill, the woodcock, the monarch, the sturgeon?
Then ask yourself, “what can I do to make a difference? How can I help protect what is still there and keep what I love from disappearing forever?” May this not be the “last waltz” for the sea stars.
Dr. Drew Harvell, marine ecologist at Cornell University and author of the brilliant book Ocean Outbreak: Confronting the Rising Tide of Marine Disease, has been at the forefront of research on the devastating impact disease has on the Ocean. Her research into Sea Star Wasting Syndrome and monitoring the health of marine ecosystems are essential contributions to the scientific community working to protect the seastars and our Oceans. You can contact her here to make a donation.
One of the most important efforts we can make is to support long-term monitoring of these ecosystems. A leader in the effort to understand Sea Star Wasting Syndrome and it’s effects on the ocean is the Rocky Intertidal Lab at University of California Santa Cruz. You can donate to their work here and designate your gift to "the Sea Star Wasting Research Lab of Peter Raimondi".
If you happen to live near the coast or know someone who does, take time to stroll along the shores and keep track of what you see. If you happen upon an affected group of animals, take photos and contact a research team or lab such as UCSC Rocky Intertidal Lab, or the Vancouver Aquarium
Make changes to your lifestyle and live mindfully: buy used items instead of new and avoid using plastic if you can, consume less and produce as little waste as possible. Drive less, bike and walk more. Living mindfully not only adds time and quality to your life but also to the life of the many species whose life is connected to yours.
Avoid vacationing in sea resorts where consumption and waste are rampant, and instead encourage places that have made commitments to conserve nature.
VOTE!!!! VOTE SMART!!!!! Ask questions of elected officials! For example:
What matters to you about the health of the ocean? What have YOU done politically to address this issue? In your personal life? What are you going to do about this issue if you are elected? MOST IMPORTANT: Do you endorse government policies that support science?www.nature.org/en-us/