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Dianne’s Creature Feature

After devastating sea star die-off, tides turn 

Story by DIANNE RUSSELL

Photos by Patsee Ober

For the past four years, a mysterious syndrome has been killing millions of sea stars along the West Coast, turning the five-armed (though they can have as many as 10, 20, or 40 arms) critters into mounds of sludge. Further descriptions involve noxious lesions and arms falling off, and some of the pictures are probably best not viewed on an empty stomach. 

But since 2015, sea stars appear to be making a comeback, big time.

The difference between a starfish and a sea star

You may be wondering, what’s the difference between a starfish and a sea star? (I did.) There isn’t.

Most of us grew up referring to the star-shaped marine animals as starfish, however, as stated in National Geographic, marine scientists have taken on the difficult task of replacing the starfish’s common name with sea star, because the starfish isn’t a fish. It’s an echinoderm, closely related to sea urchins and sand dollars.  

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Thriving sea star spotted in Laguna Beach tide pool

Although (or perhaps because) sea stars are multi-armed, they don’t have centralized brains. Yet these are some highly fascinating and resourceful echinoderms. Not only can sea stars grow back arms that have been lopped off, they have an eye at the end of each arm. For a long time, what they do with these eyes has been anyone’s (including scientist’s) guess, but it has been recently discovered that the eyes keep them from wandering too far from home (on the tiny tube feet that help move them along). 

But these are merely interesting facts and have nothing to do with the sea stars’ apocalyptic dying off.

The wasting disease culprit

“A virus is the likely culprit in a massive, ongoing die-off of sea stars along the Pacific Coast of North America,” researchers reported in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. “Sea star wasting disease is a poorly understood condition in which sea stars decline from apparent good health into melted piles of mush over a matter of days. The latest outbreak emerged along the Olympic Peninsula in Washington state in June of 2013, where its effects were not severe.  But the disease spread rapidly along the Pacific Coast, decimating populations of about 20 species of sea star.”

Their intense year-long investigation has zeroed in on a densovirus (from the family Parvoviridae) that has been present in the Pacific Ocean since at least 1942. But a mystery remains, scientists say; why the virus seems to have suddenly bloomed into an outbreak that devastated marine life from Alaska to Baja California?

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Dazzling sea stars spotted in Laguna Beach tide pools

One opinion is that it resulted from sea star overpopulation; if host population mushrooms, there is a greater opportunity for viruses to circulate. “There’s also a greater chance that the virus can mutate and become more lethal. Predators, like this particular virus, play a very important role in population control,” says Dr. Ian Hewson of Cornell University, one of the scientists who helped narrow down the viral suspects.

Others speculate that the culprit is global warming or ocean pollution.

But the good news is that younglings now seem to be flourishing in Laguna Beach and other places as well. 

Sea star sightings in Laguna Beach

Jeremy Frimond, Marine Protection Officer with the Department of Marine Safety says, “While patrolling the Laguna Beach Coastline, I have personally noticed pockets of sea star populations in areas that have been absent for the past several years. I take this as good sign for a species that is on a long road to recovery. However, these are personal observations. I am not sure what stage of the recovery process the scientific community places west coast sea star populations.” 

The scientific community hasn’t designated exactly what stage the recovery process is in, but new data from Oregon State University researchers suggests that sea stars may be making a comeback. Marine Biology Professor Bruce Menge, after a check of the population in 2016 said, “The number of juveniles was off the charts, higher than we’ve ever seen.” 

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Sea stars among an abundance of sea anemones in local tide pools 

Menge’s team found that sea star wasting cut the juvenile and adult population of purple sea stars by up to 80 percent by the end of 2014, but then the tides turned. The number of young settlers surged during autumn 2014 and continued into the following year. By spring 2015 at some sites, baby sea star numbers increased up to 300 times relative to the previous year.

Another expert concurs. “We’ve seen more babies in the last six months than we’ve seen in the last 15 years combined,” University of California, Santa Cruz, Ecology and Evolutionary Department Chair Pete Raimondi stated in the Times-Standard.

Observations from the photographer

Lagunan Patsee Ober, the photographer who took these stunning pictures, offers her thoughts, “I still like to call them starfish even though they aren’t a fish! I think that’s the first tide pool animal I laid my eyes on as a little sea shore explorer. I didn’t realize that it was not a good thing to take them home to dry out on the roof so I could look at them all the time. The Marine Protected Area in Laguna Beach has done an amazing job of protecting our sea life and educating the public about the significance of our underwater world...these are the most prolific tide pools I have ever seen and I am so happy to see our sea stars coming back after getting wiped out by that virus. 

“My goal when photographing the tide pool life is to show others another world they may never see...so they can see almost firsthand the underwater world that we need to protect. I tell the little people that they are the ones that will have to keep our tide pools alive...they always nod their heads yes...and I am thankful for that.”  

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Photo by Patsee Ober

Purple urchins share Laguna tide pools with sea stars

Officer Frimond offers cautionary advice to Laguna beachgoers regarding the sea star comeback, “In any event, we want to make sure that we do our part in fostering their recovery by avoiding stepping on, handling, touching, or taking these animals when visiting the beaches. We also want to make sure we keep their environment pristine by not littering or dumping any chemicals into the ocean or tide pool habitats.”

Hopefully, if we all nurture and protect the burgeoning population, the resurgence will continue. “It will take a couple of years to know for sure whether these young sea stars will contribute to a recovery of populations along North America’s west coast. But it gives us some hope,” Raimondi (of UCSC) said in 2015. 

Patsee, thank you for your breathtaking documentation of our Laguna sea stars. The photos represent the recovery and anticipated return of these strange and beautiful creatures. Let’s make sure we take care of these sea star younglings that call Laguna their home. 

Patsee Ober, underwater photographer (or “Mermaid with a Camera”) also exhibits her photography art at the Sawdust Festival. Her website is www.pophotography.com.

Never ask a starfish directions…Unknown