During the winter holidays we surround ourselves with the symbols of Christmas; snowflakes, lights, bells, evergreen trees and stars. Some of these season’s cheers have an obvious origin (snowflakes for winter time, and lights to give cheer to your local electric company), in others the symbolism is more complicated and relates to various traditions from around the world. I would love to know how many Kodiak families had one or more marine related ornaments on their Christmas trees; fish, boats, shells, crabs, jellyfishes or sea stars.
I always think that our native blood sea star could really be called a Christmas sea star for its cheerful bright red coloration and the contrast it gives when found in green seaweed. Seeing one of these pretty red stars on the beach on Christmas day while walking my dog felt like a small personal Christmas greeting from the ocean.
However, 2014 was not a good year for sea stars on the Pacific West coast. It all started in fall of 2013, when at a monitoring site on the Olympic Peninsula in Washington State several sea stars were reported to have sea star wasting syndrome (SSWS). A compilation of observations then listed diseased sea stars from Southeast Alaska, Oregon, and other areas in Washington. As 2014 progressed more and more locations along the West Coast were infected and in the largest documented breakout of SSWS at least twelve species of sea stars in numerous locations from California to Alaska were affected.
It starts with a pale splotch on one of the arms. At the advanced stage two or more arms are affected and the skin tissue in the affected areas looks like it simply dissolves. Sea stars with severe wasting disease have large areas of pale discoloration, lose arms, and usually become sluggish, then die. Although the phenomenon has been observed since the early 20th century, last year was the most severe and widespread outbreak, affecting more species and more coastline than ever before observed.
Scientists up and down the coast are looking into this die-off of sea stars and yet a satisfactory explanation is still elusive. The first attempt at an explanation blamed warmer ocean temperatures. While warming trends may play a role in the phenomenon they could not explain the patterns of where the disease occurred and when. A recently published paper found a virus prevalent in all affected sea stars. While that brings an explanation closer, it does still not solve the mysteries. The same virus has been around for many years. It can also be found in healthy sea urchins. Some healthy sea stars that were transported to an Alaska facility started showing signs of wasting disease within days of transport. Whether the sea stars fell victim to a virus, the temperatures, the stress, some yet undiscovered agent in the water, or a combination of many things remains unknown.
As of November, the northernmost occurrence of SSWS reported on the wasting disease website “seastarwasting.org” by the University of California Santa Cruz was Sawmill Bay, East of Anchorage. Please keep your eyes peeled when you are at the beach and see those beautiful red stars decorating the intertidal. If they or any other species of sea star appear like the tissue is dissolving or if you see a number of dead sea stars, take a picture, record the time and place, and visit the website to report sightings of sea star wasting disease.
Why should we care? People don’t eat sea stars and most of us go about our daily business without ever thinking much about sea stars. In the natural world, all life forms and many non-living factors are interconnected. Disease and die-off of one species has effects on predators and prey, alters space availability, and changes the workings of the local ecosystem. If there is something looming in the ocean that makes our sea stars sick, I’d like to know what it is and if there is any way to put things right again. I would do this for the sake of sea stars and all those other amazing ocean creatures, but also for the sake of knowing that in coastal Alaska we care about what goes on in our oceans because we depend directly on what we take from them.