The Starfish Are Melting
Millions of sea stars have disappeared due to Sea Star Wasting Disease. This oceanic disaster has dire implications for the health of tide pool environments and the ocean.
T H E
S T A R F I S H
A R E
M E L T I N G
Many years ago, I was approached by a sunflower sea star (commonly called starfish) as I walked in the shallow waters of a low tide. This creature moves rapidly (compared to most tidepool creatures) and as it came closer I stood still as a statue. This little beauty touched my shoe, my pant leg, and as I stood, mesmerized, it felt around my entire leg before finally moving away into the shallows and the kelp, disappearing into the ocean that it came from. My heart was completely, totally given over.
As an artist, I have loved the sunflowers of Van Gogh for decades, and have been painting them with abandon for 20 years. So discovering another kind of sunflower that lived in the tidepool landscape was serendipitous. A 24-legged starfish that moved rapidly, that was orange, purple, hot pink, and yellow, with 15,000 delicate suction-cupped tube feet was an animal that was an artist's dream come true. That it actually approached me on that beautiful low-tide April morning was one of the most beautiful moments of my life.
When I traveled to the West Coast in April 2015, I visited the tidepools hoping to commune with the sea stars. While looking out over the mussel beds that should have been covered with hundreds of purple sea stars, I was joined by a woman who lived nearby. She mentioned how beautiful it was to see the tidepools. I asked her, "Do you notice anything missing?" She stopped for a few moments and looked around and said, "Where are the starfish?"
Sea stars are dying by the millions. Between 2013-2014 , 90% of the sea star population from Alaska to Mexico has died. Mortality rates have far exceeding anything every recorded and scientists have confirmed that warming temperatures played a part in what's being called the single largest, most-geographically widespread marine disease on record. Sea Star Wasting Disease is killing the sunflower sea star and most other species of sea stars. They first develop lesions, then begin to lose arms, collapse into themselves and literally dissolve into a gooey substance. Previously covering the ocean floor with their beautiful bodies, they are now actually melting. Their disappearance is disastrous to the tidepool environment, because, at the top of the food chain, they keep many other species in check. Many seastars are"keystone species", and without them, particularly the sunflower sea stars, who reign over the other creatures in a tidepool, the sea urchin population has exploded in some areas. Sea urchins eat away at the kelp beds, which provide food and shelter to countless other marine animals and sea life.
I have challenged myself to depict these creatures during a time of crises for them...while they are melting. These paintings are dedicated to the beautiful sunflower sea stars that have died in the millions.
"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 tidepool to the stars and back to the tidepool again." -John Steinbeck Sea of Cortez
I donate 10% of sales of my sea star and tidepool related artwork to the Rocky Intertidal Lab at UC Santa Cruz (specifically to the "Sea Star Wasting Research in the lab of Peter Raimondi"). Supporting their ongoing efforts in long-term monitoring of the Sea Star Wasting Disease is crucial. It is my hope that the root cause of this ocean calamity is discovered and solutions to help in their recovery can occur before it is too late.
I hope you care
All is not lost. While some areas of the ocean are still rife with decaying sea stars, there have been observations of healthy infant and juvenile sea stars repopulating barren sea floors. I love tide pools and that is what moves me to take action to help.
I hope to inspire my audience to look to the natural world for what YOU love. Notice what is healthy or what is becoming more scarce. Is it bees, whippoorwills, sturgeon? The monarch, piping plover, or the several species of bat? 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?"
"The Flowers Are Burning: An Art Climate Justice Project" by Mary Kay Neumann and Helen Klebesadel is a traveling art & environmental project. We invite you to visit the next exhibition, where we provide an opportunity for the public to reflect on these questions:
What do you love that needs protecting?
What are you moved to do about it?
"Using flower as metaphor, we evoke a sense of alarm at our need to address urgent environmental concerns while holding up the vision of possibility of rising from the ashes of restorative prairie burn. We invite our audience to engage in both the danger AND optimism. The synergy we created in our shared art-making is a metaphor for the cooperation and creative collaboration we all need as a community to make real and productive change for our shared future. We offer the energy of flowers that burn with power AND beauty"
-Helen Klebesadel and Mary Kay Neumann
Ways to help the Sea Stars
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 USCS Rocky Intertidal Lab.
One of the most important efforts that we can make is to support long-term monitoring of ocean ecosystems. One leader in the effort to understand and document Sea Star Wasting Syndrome and its 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.
Organize a fundraiser and raise awareness about the health of the oceans using the case of the vanishing sea stars. Funds can be donated to a research lab of your choice or to an institution such as 5Gyres Institute that has been working hard to help "Restore Healthy, Plastic-Free Oceans".
Make changes to your lifestyle and life mindfully: buy used items instead of new and avoid using plastic if you can, consume less and produce as little waste as possible. 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?
WEBSITES OF INTEREST
Warm Waters Linked to Sea Star Wasting
Why Humans Should Mind Dying Sea stars
The Guardian: Starfish Suffer Mysterious & Gruesome Demise
Dying Sea stars Inspire U.S. Politician's New Marine Bill
Cornell University: Sea Star Wasting Disease
Sea Star Wasting Syndrome: Pacific Rocky Intertidal Monitoring
Massive Starfish Die-Off Linked to Warming Oceans