In preparation for my exhibition with Helen Klebesadel, The Flowers Are Burning, I was in contact with several marine biologists, aquarium researchers, and writers. Daniela Ginta, freelance writer for Planet Experts, generously offered to write an article about Seastar Wasting Syndrome (SSWS) for our exhibition. Here are some excerpts:
"Seastars have been part of the tidal landscape since the beginning of time. Tide in or out, seastars 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 seastars, are alive and well.
"Yet as of June 2013, seastars have been subject to massive and mysterious die-offs. Described as 'Seastar Wasting Syndrome' the disease that killed millions of seastars 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 stars and perhaps making them more susceptible to the syndrome. That seems to be only part of the answer to why seastars are perishing. Scientists are still looking for answers.
"The disappearance of seastars influences other species as well. Fewer seastars allow for sea urchins (some of their prey) to mulitiply 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 "SSWS 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 SSWS, 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 seastars, 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 seastars. 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.
I spoke with Dr. Peter Raimondi, Professor of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology of the University of California at Santa Cruz. I asked him his perspective on how people could get involved in helping the seastars. 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 horror of watching the sea stars dying when the outbreak first occurred. She said it was like a horror show to see the devastation. 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.