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Posts from the ‘Environmental Issues’ category

Video re. August 1st, 2018 Orca / Boat Interaction Near Langdale

Recently, there have again been posts shared widely on social media promoting “encounters” where Orca are very close to boats.

My video compilations below about an August 1st incident are an attempt to counteract the effects of such promotions in their increasing pressure on the whales.

It is an attempt to educate, not to shame or vilify.

Those in the video appear to have acted in ignorance but there is the moral and ethical weight to know regulations and the repercussions of your actions, including when you put videos of such encounters into the world.  Sharing such imagery perpetuates ignorance around what is legal, rewards those who have undertaken such behaviours, and feeds the pressure to be “up close and personal”

Know that behaviours shown by the whales is associated with disturbance i.e. repeated tail-lobbing and the tail breaches / caudal peduncle throws.

The incident is under investigation by Fisheries and Oceans Canada.

For Marine Mammal Regulations, best practices and boater safety tips see www.SeeABlowGoSlow.org. Report incidents to 1-800-465-4336.

Part One

Part Two – shows the boat is in close proximity to the whales while at high speed.

What’s it Going to Be? Fight or Flight?

I learn a lot from social media.

Screen grab from SeaLegacy video of
emaciated Polar Bear. See post below.

The reactions to recent posts I’ve made have given me much to think about.

These include two horrifically compelling videos: (1) a fish full of ingested plastic; and (2) an emaciated Polar Bear.

These videos are included at the end of this blog. I hesitated to share them on social media because I know that at the heart of my “The Marine Detective” community, there are people as aware and motivated as I am. It’s not educating you really need.

Screen grab from video of a Mahi Mahi with
plastic in its intestines. See post below.

You need confirmation of solutions and protection from despondency.

But I did share the videos and you’ll notice in my text on the posts (also below) that my decision to do so was because I believed they were powerful resources for others who may not yet fully “get it”.

I am very aware that it’s a delicate dance. To engage, connect, inspire and educate for the sake of more people undertaking positive action. Graphic imagery can help motivate but it can also lead people to disengage, succumb to eco-paralysis and eco-phobia; and/or disappear into the pit of despair.

It’s about fight or flight.

When faced with a threat that’s what we do*.

And climate change, plastics pollution, lack of security – these are threats.

There are many who flee (or freeze). It’s too much. They deny. They try for alternative explanations. They turn away. They shut down. They need to believe there is somewhere to flee to.

Then there are those who fight. Who become further motivated. Who become even more resolute in their actions and intentions.

What makes the difference? In the work I am compelled to do, I need to understand as best as I can.

What do the fighters need to keep fighting?

And what could motivate those who flee to turn around? To see the way forward?

Of course there are many variables at play but what has been further solidified for me as a result of these recent social media posts is that the difference between flight and fight can be  . . . knowing its worth the fight.

We run from what is overwhelming, terrifying and what is perceived to diminish our quality of life.

We fight for what we know is right and are more inclined to do so when we know how to fight and who and what we are fighting.

Who and what are we fighting?
We are being manipulated by the consumer / disposable / fossil fuel paradigm to be fearful and to continue in the way that will ensure their continued power. We are to value acquisition above time and relationships. We are to equate success with stuff. We are meant to feel discontent and that with further purchasing, life will be enhanced. Not only does this paradigm thrive on fear, it grows fat on inequality (sexism, racism, etc).

How to fight?
Realize there’s so much potential for positive change when we remove fear and recognize there are common solutions to socio-environmental problems.

It’s not climate change vs. plastic pollution vs. poverty, etc.

It’s not life depreciating.

There is great gain in:

  • Understanding our connectedness (through ecosystems and through our purchasing and voter behaviour).
  • Valuing human ingenuity but not as an exit strategy and never without true precaution.
  • Using less (less fossil fuels, less disposables, less harmful chemicals).
  • Not being about perfectionism and absolutism and righteousness and bipolarity e.g. “environmentalist” vs. “resource user”.
  • Working for equality. Empowering our fellow humans reduces poverty, violence and even overpopulation.
  • Embracing our power to make positive change.

Really, it’s no surprise that empowered people are happier people.

To you, the fighters who have read this, I hope it has been of use to you.

To those who are inclined to flee, my understanding to you and respect that you have read this far. May this have a roll in your choosing to reject fear and embrace action that leads to greater happiness and purpose. We need you.

For me, the exercise of writing this has been affirming of the path forward.

Because we are even more inclined to fight when we better know how to win.


Text I posted with the following video: “I expect very few people here need further motivation to reduce plastic use but – maybe of use in your circles? Mahi mahi (fish) in Puerto Rico full of plastic. Of course, what we can’t see is the micro-particles of plastic that enter our food chain. Don’t be despondent. Be deliberate.”


Text I posted on Facebook regarding the following:
“I have waited with sharing this. Again, because I believe so many of us here “get it” and I do not want to contribute to eco-phobia and eco-paralysis. But also again, this is so compelling and powerful to be shared with those who do not YET get it. This is what a starving Polar Bear looks like. Is it a certainty that THIS Polar Bear is starving because of climate change? No. Is it a certainty that reduced sea ice makes it far more difficult for Polar Bears to hunt and that they will starve? Yes. And THIS is what a starving Polar Bear looks like. Gutting to watch.
Adds to my motivation to reduce carbon through my consumer and voter behaviour.
Don’t be despondent. Don’t turn away. Mobilize your sorrow and outrage. Reduce carbon footprints.”
For more detail please see CBC “As It Happens” information by clicking here. The article also addresses concerns about why the bear was not fed.


* What further catalyzed this blog is the podcast by Ashley Ahearn in which fight and flight are discussed as reactions to climate changes.
See “You probably have eco anxiety. You just don’t know it.”

 

Mr. Prime Minister . . . . (after the Bella Bella spill)

Thank you dear reader, thank you for caring enough to come to this page.

You are among those who are gutted by what is being learned from the sinking of the tug, the Nathan E. Stewart, near Bella Bella on BC’s North Coast. You have not somehow rationalized it away, but see the spill fully for what it is – a disaster – a cultural, environmental, and economic disaster. This was “only” the diesel from a tug – a dire indicator of what insane risks are being flirted with regarding tanker traffic on our coast.

You want the lessons to be fully learned and acted on. You want the voices of those most directly impacted to be heard. You don’t want it to happen again.

You want to know what to do.

You are my motivation for this page. For you, I want to bundle what I believe are the most useful actions we can undertake with the resources that support them.

Mammal-hunting Orca T057A traveling through the area of the spill. Photo: ©April Bencze.

Mammal-hunting Orca T057A traveling through the area of the spill. Photo: ©April Bencze.

Please see the four “What You Can Do” points below and, as if you needed further motivation, read the words below. They are from April Bencze. She and Tavish Campbell are on site striving to be of use to the Heiltsuk First Nation in witnessing and documenting the extent of the the impact of the spill with their considerable skills as video/photographers and divers. They are dear friends of mine. I will update this blog with their insights and images and those of the Heiltsuk. April’s powerful words from this morning  . . . .

“Every tide pool has a layer of diesel coating it. The sea breeze, my favourite smell in the world, now reeks of diesel, burns my eyes and gives me a headache as I walk the beach looking into each devastated tide pool and seeing the intertidal life being irreversibly poisoned. Spill response can’t fix this. No one can fix this, no matter how much money or how many resources are thrown at it. Canada should not pretend it has the ability to undo this damage. Justin Trudeau should be mourning the loss of a large expanse of wilderness that has been poisoned, and then do everything in his power to ensure this never happens again. That means no tankers on this coast. But it’s hard. It is hard because Prime Minister Justin Trudeau cannot see the marine life dying. He cannot feel the sting of diesel in his eyes. He cannot taste oil on the breeze where there should only be salty fresh air. He cannot see the deer and wolves feeding on the diesel-soaked intertidal life. He cannot see the orcas inhaling diesel and diving with it permeating their lungs. He cannot see the grief of the people who live here. He cannot see the thick diesel covering the ocean, and the tides that carry it to all stretches of the land. He cannot see the spill response team being dismissive about reports of diesel sheen near sensitive salmon creeks. He cannot see that the people here mourn the loss of their food source from the very beaches now made toxic. This is a disaster. Please start a conversation about what you are willing to risk to transport oil/fuel on this coast. I did not accept this risk. The Heiltsuk Nation did not accept this risk. Did you?”

What You Can Do:

  1. Write Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, referencing the election promise made to “Formalize a moratorium on crude oil tanker traffic on British Columbia’s North Coast.” This can easily be done by using the David Suzuki Foundation’s resource at this link and adapting the text as you see fit to reference the Bella Bella spill. Let him know that you too do not accept the risk.

    Click to enlarge. Content from PM Trudeau’s November 2015 mandate letter to the Minister of Transport confirming the priority of the moratorium. The mandate letter can be found here.

  2. Reduce the use of fossil fuels and support initiatives to transition to non-carbon energy sources. Enjoy the savings as well as the knowledge that you are not fuelling the demand that threatens our coast with tanker traffic.
  3. Support the Heiltsuk First Nation. If you can, provide financial support so that the impacts can be independently investigated, documented and made public. See this link to make donations.
  4. Help amplify the knowledge of this spill. This happened on a pristine, remote part of BC’s coast.  Imagine the attention and action there would be had it happened near an urban centre. Imagine the number of outraged voters wanting risks reduced. Imagine the resulting political will to follow through on campaign promises. There are those in powerful positions who hope that the remoteness of the disaster means that the concern will go away – unlike the impacts of the spill. Please let’s not let that happen.

Coming: Slide show of April and Tavish’s photos.

Resources: 

How to Kill a Living Dinosaur. The Epitome of Disconnect?

I saw a Leatherback Sea Turtle. I did! And I don’t know if I can ever be the same again.

It happened on July 25th, while I was a member of Fisheries and Oceans Canada’s (DFO) Marine Mammal Research Section aboard the Canadian Coast Guard Vessel J.P. Tully. We surveyed up to 138 nautical miles (256 km) west of Vancouver Island. The purpose of the DFO survey was to increase knowledge about at-risk marine mammal and turtle species’ distribution and abundance.

Can you imagine the wonder, the euphoria, the astonishment, the sense of privilege at seeing this endangered giant that is a living dinosaur?

Here’s how it unfolded. It was at the end of the survey day around 8:02 PM on July 25th. I had finished my shift but was still having a discussion on the port side of the bridge. Suddenly, the Third Officer Brent Seamone said, from the other side of the bridge, “Hey, it’s a turtle!”

With all I had, I rushed to the other side of ship (apologies to any fellow crew members who may have been bruised as a result). And there it was . . . a shadow just under the surface, gliding away from the ship. I stared down its ridged back. Time seemed frozen, suspended for a turtle heartbeat or two. My synapses firing, my adrenaline surging, my brain questioned – could it really be true? And it was. In the vastness of the NE Pacific Ocean we had chanced upon a male Leatherback Turtle. This was the first known sighting of this endangered species in BC waters in two years* (and also reported to I-866-I-SAW-ONE).

Leatherbacks belong in the rich waters off BC’s coast, coming all the way from Indonesia to feed on jellyfish. I knew this well having only just launched the resource “Leatherbacks in BC” to raise awareness about these giants and the risks they face.

I marvelled at the incredible good luck of it – finding a proverbial needle in such a very large and deep haystack – but of course also that I happened to be on the bridge when I was. My dear friend who works so hard for Leatherback conservation and with whom I wrote the resource, had left the bridge mere minutes before the sighting. How wonderful it would have been for the Chief Scientist to see the turtle too.

I don’t have a photo. I wish I did to make the next part of what I have to share more impactful. Yes, now comes the “How to kill a living dinosaur” part.

Only a few days earlier, we retrieved these from the ocean – Canada Day balloons drifting out at sea in Leatherback habitat 20 days after Canada Day.

Canada Day balloons drifting in Leatherback habitat on July 21st. Photo: Hildering.

Canada Day balloons drifting in Leatherback habitat on July 21st. Photo: Hildering.

It was already our intent to have these images go widely into the world in the hope that it might make more realize that plastics (especially plastic bags) and balloons can kill endangered Leatherback Turtles (and other marine species). Sea turtles cannot discern these from their jellyfish prey. In fact, in a global study of 408 dead Leatherback Turtles, more than 30% had plastics in their intestines (Mrosovsky et al, 2009).

You can certainly see how the balloons could be mistaken for jellies.<br> Lisa Spaven of DFO in photo.

You can certainly see how the deflated balloons could be mistaken for jellies. Lisa Spaven of DFO in photo.

You can imagine my increased motivation for awareness now.

Of course we don’t know the backstory on these balloons – where they came from or if there was any attempt to retrieve them.

Tully crew removing the balloons from the ocean.

Tully crew removing the balloons from the ocean for the sake of Leatherbacks and other species.
Photo: Hildering. 

We do know that it is a far too common a practice to “celebrate” by releasing balloons into the air e.g. as symbolization when someone dies and even to mark an environmental event (yikes!!!)

But of course, unless items are biodegradable, there is no “away”. There is no throwing “away”, flushing “away” or  . . .  drifting “away”.  There is a cost to other species, and ultimately, to ourselves.

What I hope these images and words do, is increase this knowledge. Please could you help?

The solutions are simple, please help increase awareness that #balloonsblow and #plasticspollute.

For more on the wonder that is Leatherback Turtles in BC, please see www.LeatherbacksInBC.org.

TMD Memes.001

 

* Last reported sighting of a Leatherback Turtle in BC waters prior to this was August 20, 2014 off SW Vancouver Island.

Lost Teddy! Fluffy piece?

Here’s an item that is shared for the purposes of lightness and connection. Because, let’s face it, there’s enough dark and heavy out there. Also, maybe, just maybe it will create an opportunity for awareness about marine debris?

See the image below. Could this be the world’s saddest Teddy?

Lost Teddy! Wouldn't it be remarkable to find out how, where and when s/he ended up in the Ocean?

Lost Teddy! Wouldn’t it be remarkable to find out how, where and when s/he ended up in the Ocean?

My dive buddy, Natasha Dickinson, found him/her at bottom of the Ocean in Port Hardy on January 1st. Unlike so much of the debris near the dock, it is unlikely this little guy was mindlessly tossed away (see photos below).

Wouldn’t it be something to find its home and know its story? Would it enhance a sense of connection? Would the story be a catalyst to discussion, engagement and action about the insult to our Oceans that is marine debris?

Via Facebook and Twitter this information is being shared with “#‎LostTeddy”‬.

S/he has also been posted on the international Lost Teddy site (yes, there is such a thing).

Teddy is now being cleaned up for potential reuniting with humans.

XXX

Update: January 3, 2016 – It’s not a Teddy. I got this clue from that Teddy locating site”That’s Ginger Bell, originally sold by Sears in 2004! Brenda.” Sure enough – looked up a photo and, it’s Ginger Bell.


Photos below show some of the beauty striving to survive among the debris under the Seagate Dock in Port Hardy (the dive where Teddy was found). This “scene” is representative of most docks on our Coast and I am striving to raise awareness about marine debris and how, to me, this is the most stark indicator of the disconnect about the importance of the Ocean to human health. We are all vastly empowered to create positive change, not only by ensuring there is less physical pollution (litter) but by reducing use of carbon and chemicals such as pesticides (thereby reducing temperature change, acidification, toxins); and increasing knowledge and engagement about the importance, beauty and fragility of our Ocean. Reality is, what we do to the Ocean we ultimately  . . . do to ourselves.

Shopping carts and plastic . . and anemones. Photo by dive buddy ©Alexandra Spicer.

Shopping carts and plastic . . and anemones. Photo by dive buddy Alexandra Spicer.

Northern Kelp Crabs and Rose Anemone atop a big chunk of plastic. ©Jackie Hildering; themarinedetective.ca.

Northern Kelp Crabs and Rose Anemone atop a big chunk of plastic. ©Jackie Hildering

Plumose Anemones just under the surface. ©Jackie Hildering; themarinedetective.ca.

Plumose Anemones just under the surface, just above the debris. ©Jackie Hildering; themarinedetective.ca.

 

Hooded Nudibranch on Eelgrass just under the surface near the Seagate Dock, Port Hardy. @Jackie Hildering.

Hooded Nudibranch on Eelgrass just under the surface near to mounds of debris. @Jackie Hildering.

An example of the beauty among the debris - species trying to survive amongst what most often purposely/ carelessly ends up in the Ocean. Here - egg mass laid by a Pacific Sea Lemon (nudibranch) where each dot can hatch into a larval nudibranch. Next photo, the nudibranch that likely laid the egg mass beside a beer can. ©Jackie Hildering.

A striking example of the beauty among the debris – species trying to survive amongst what most often purposely/ carelessly ends up in the Ocean – an egg mass laid by a Pacific Sea Lemon (nudibranch) where each dot can hatch into a larval nudibranch. Next photo, the nudibranch that likely laid the egg mass beside . . . a beer can. ©Jackie Hildering.

@2016 Jackie Hildering one time use -13324

 

Dive buddies near Giant Pink Star. Left, Natasha Dickinson. Right, Alexandra Spicer. ©Jackie Hildering; themarinedetective.ca.

Dive buddies and Giant Pink Star. Left, Natasha Dickinson. Right, Alexandra Spicer. ©Jackie Hildering.

Surely Not Again?! Tidal Turbines in Whale Epicentre? Still Hell No!

Here we go again. 

It has just come to my attention that there are two applications for tenure for tidal turbines in killer whale critical habitat. This last arose in November in 2012 with my posting the blog “Tidal Turbines in Whale Epicentre? Hell No!”. The resulting media coverage, your action and the ethics of the applicant resulted in that application being withdrawn.

With these two new applications, your action is again very much needed.

The comment deadline is April 9th, 2015. 

Below, I have edited my November 2012 blog to be applicable to these applications and hopefully I have succeeded in making commenting very expeditious for you. 

Here goes . . . .

There are times when expletives like “Hell No!” are justified and I am sure you will agree this is one of those very unfortunate times and – your action is needed.

There are two applications for “OCEAN ENERGY / INVESTIGATIVE AND MONITORING PHASE” by Weyl Power Ltd. If accepted by the BC Ministry of Forest, Lands and Natural Resource Operations (MFLNRO), this would allow the instalment of technical and investigative monitoring equipment in killer whale critical habitat which could then lead to turbines also being located there.  I believe the applications are still referenced as licenses of occupation“.

See the map for the location of the proposed Weyl Power sites relative to resident killer whale critical habitat as per the Recovery Strategy for Northern and Southern Resident Killer Whales in Canada.

Proposed sites relative to acknowledged northern resident killer whale critical habitat.

Proposed sites relative to acknowledged northern resident killer whale critical habitat. Source of base map: BC Cetacean Sightings Network. Click to enlarge. For more on the determination of this critical habitat see Ford, J.K.B. An Assessment of critical habitats of resident killer whales in waters off the Pacific Coast of Canada. Canadian Science Advisory Secretariat, Research Document 2006/072.

(1) Johnstone Strait between Hanson Island and Telegraph Cove (File: #1414321)

(2)  Broughton Strait, western end of Malcolm Island  (File: #1414325)

While I of course support initiatives to reduce the use of climate-changing fossil fuels, to have turbines in critical whale habitat would be pure, simple, total, utter insanity. No matter how advanced the turbine technology, no amount of mitigation could compensate for the noise, prey reduction, and other disturbance to the whales.

One would hope that government agencies would surely deny the applications, especially after the public outcry after the similar 2012 application in this same area.  However, we have many examples of this being tragically misplaced faith and cannot count on there being any legislation in place for sound environmental assessment that would confirm environmental impacts. Note that the federal government had to be taken to court TWICE to be ordered to acknowledge and protect killer whale critical habitat – first ruling December 7, 2010; appeal ruling February 9th, 2011.

Weyl Power Application -  Johnstone Strait between Hanson Island and Telegraph Cove. File: #1414321

Weyl Power Application – Johnstone Strait between Hanson Island and Telegraph Cove. File: #1414321. Click to enlarge.

The very ocean current that makes this area of interest for staking a claim for ocean energy is what makes this such a rich area for marine life. The importance of this area for killer whales can be supported by almost 4 decades of data collected by Department of Fisheries and Oceans and the OrcaLab.

To allow these applications to proceed would therefore be ludicrous and in direct conflict of Objective 4 of the Northern and Southern Resident Killer Whale Action Plan for Species at Risk which is to “Protect critical habitat for Resident Killer Whales and identify additional areas for critical habitat designation and protection.”

Weyl Power Application -  Broughton Strait, western end of Malcolm Island. File: #1414321. Click to enlarge. Weyl Power Application -  Johnstone Strait between Hanson Island and Telegraph Cove

Weyl Power Application – Broughton Strait, western end of Malcolm Island. File: #1414321. Click to enlarge.

Therefore, we collectively need (again) to make our “Hell No!” heard.

Please comment by the April 9th deadline by going to these two links and scrolling down till you see “To comment on this application please click here”.

  • Weyl Power application for Johnstone Strait between Hanson Island and Telegraph Cove (File: #1414321) – click here.
  • Weyl Power application for Broughton Strait, western end of Malcolm Island (File: #1414325) – click here.

Sample text: With regard to Land File Numbers 1414321 and 1414325, the applications for Weyl Power Ltd’s “OCEAN ENERGY / INVESTIGATIVE AND MONITORING PHASE” in the Broughton Strait to Johnstone Strait area, I write you to express that these applications for tenure must not be granted. The applications are in scientifically confirmed critical habitat for northern resident killer whales and it has been legally ruled that this must be protected as per Canada’s Species at Risk Act. In addition, the area is of great importance to humpback whales and many other marine species.  No matter how advanced the turbine technology, no amount of mitigation could compensate for the noise, prey reduction, and other disturbance to the whales and to approve these applications would be in direct conflict of Objective 4 of the Northern and Southern Resident Killer Whale Action Plan for Species at Risk which is to “Protect critical habitat for Resident Killer Whales and identify additional areas for critical habitat designation and protection”. It is also unacceptable that the public is not provided with information on these applications other than the applicant name and the maps i.e. no information about design or environmental assessment process.”
You may even want to reference this blog and provide the link e.g. “For further details of the reasons for my great objection to this application see the rationale and resources provided at http://wp.me/pPW6V-1cJ.

Please also help spread the word?

So much insanity  . . . so little time.  

References:

Media Coverage:

Take Part; March 22, 2015; “The Clean-Energy Project That Could Harm Endangered Killer Whales – A mystery firm wants to build underwater power turbines in critical orca habitat off Canada’s Pacific coast

Sea Star Wasting Syndrome Now Documented on NE Vancouver Island

Giant pink sea star in final stages of sea star wasting syndrome. Bear Cove, Port Hardy; December 21, 2013. © 2013 Jackie Hildering

Giant pink sea star in final stages of sea star wasting syndrome. Bear Cove, Port Hardy; December 21, 2013. © 2013 Jackie Hildering

[Update: November 18, 2014 Study published today – cause of Sea Star Wasting Syndrome a densovirus that has been present for at least 72 years? Why has it led to mass mortality now? What makes sense is that, like any virus, the incidents of “pathogenicity” depends on stressors (e.g. temperature change) and proximity of individuals. The virus has also been found in other echinoderms like urchins and sand dollars and it persists in sediment = can be transmitted by those vectors and there is the potential that the other echinoderms are/will be affected. See the study by Cornell University at the link below (lead author Ian Hewson). Includes “If SSaDV is the cause of the current SSWD event, it is unclear why the virus did not elicit wide disease outbreaks in the past during periods in which it was detected; however, there are several possible reasons why the current SSWD event is broader and more intense than previous occurrences. SSaDV may have been present at lower prevalence for decades and only became an epidemic recently due to unmeasured environmental factors not present in previous years that affect animal susceptibility or enhance transmission.”
http://www.pnas.org/content/early/2014/11/12/1416625111.abstract

Good coverage in a 7-minute radio interview
Science Friday; December 5, 2014: “What’s Killing West Coast Starfish?”  http://www.sciencefriday.com/segment/12/05/2014/what-s-killing-west-coast-starfish.html#path/segment/12/05/2014/what-s-killing-west-coast-starfish.html


________________________________

Deepest of sighs.

I am very sad to report that Sea Star Wasting Syndrome is now on NE Vancouver Island.

I first detected symptoms of the Syndrome at Bear Cove in Port Hardy on December 13th. Please see table at the end of this blog for how the species affected appears to be quite different from further to the south. Leather stars seem particularly affected and the Syndrome appears to advance much more slowly.

Leather star with sea star wasting syndrome. (Click to enlarge). Bear Cove, Port Hardy; December 21, 2013. © 2013 Jackie Hildering

Leather star with sea star wasting syndrome. (Click to enlarge). Bear Cove, Port Hardy; December 21, 2013. © 2013 Jackie Hildering

I have tried to think up a terrestrial analogy for what is happening to the sea stars so that non-divers might better get a sense of the weight and ecosystem importance of it. However, I can’t come up with a good terrestrial equivalent of an abundant group of highly visible, apex predators. My best attempt is to suggest you think of sea stars like birds of prey. Imagine what you would feel like if you were to notice they were dying, bodies deflating . . . then melting away and that this would progress very quickly and spread like wildfire.

Mottled star with sea star wasting syndrome. (Click to enlarge). Bear Cove, Port Hardy; December 21, 2013. © 2013 Jackie Hildering

Mottled star with sea star wasting syndrome. (Click to enlarge). Bear Cove, Port Hardy; December 21, 2013. © 2013 Jackie Hildering

Please see my previous blog item, “Wasted, What is Happening to the Sea Stars of the NE Pacific Ocean?”, for great detail on the symptoms, species impacted further to the south, spread of the Syndrome, and how to help understand what is happening by relaying data to the Vancouver Aquarium. 

The short of it is:

  • The meltdown of sea stars was first detected in June 2013 in Washington State in ochre stars and in sunflower stars in Howe Sound (BC) in late August 2013 but has now been reported at sites from Alaska to the Mexican border.
  • Sunflower star in distress - potentially wasting syndrome. (Click to enlarge.) Photo from a week ago. Bear Cove, Port Hardy; December 13, 2013. © 2013 Jackie Hildering

    Sunflower star in distress – potentially wasting syndrome. (Click to enlarge.) Photo from a week ago. Bear Cove, Port Hardy; December 13, 2013.
    © 2013 Jackie Hildering

    The number of sea stars impacted is orders of magnitude greater than any previous known outbreak.

  • Most likely due to a pathogen (virus and or/bacteria). Cornell University is doing the genomic work. Toxins and environmental conditions have not been ruled out as the cause (or compounding factors).
  • If it is a pathogen, how quickly it spreads is influenced by the number of animals and if they are stressed. There are likely to be layers of stressors.
  • It has put forward by the scientific community that this could be a normal mechanism for overpopulation in sea stars.

The 1-minute time-lapse video below shows the progression of the Syndrome in a sunflower star over 7 hours.

Yep, it’s terrible.

However, I believe very strongly that, in attempting to raise awareness about marine environmental issues, I must always reflect on “what you can do”. If I do not, I contribute to the spread of a devastating human syndrome: Eco-paralysis. Symptoms include people becoming despondent, overwhelmed, and underactive in undertaking positive socio-environmental change, and often saying “It’s all hopeless”. The cause? This I do know. Eco-paralysis is the result of not seeing the common solutions between environmental problems.

Sea Star Wasting Syndrome is a solid indicator of how little we know about our life-sustaining oceans. It emphasizes the importance of humility and precaution in decision-making around the environment and how we are all empowered to reduce environmental stressors (with emphasis on reducing fossil fuel consumption and chemical use).

Having witnessed what I have over the last many weeks, I am all the more driven to assist others in (1) falling deeper in love with the NE Pacific Ocean by revealing the beauty below her surface and (2) feeling the joy that comes from creating change that is better for the environment and, therefore, ourselves.

What was once a sunflower star. (Click to enlarge). Bear Cove, Port Hardy; December 23, 2013. © 2013 Jackie Hildering

What was once a sunflower star. (Click to enlarge). Bear Cove, Port Hardy; December 23, 2013.
© 2013 Jackie Hildering

The progression of the Syndrome in 2 days in a giant pink star. (Click to enlarge.)© 2013 Jackie Hildering

The progression of the Syndrome in 2 days in a giant pink star. (Click to enlarge.)© 2013 Jackie Hildering

Table showing progression of SSWS at Bear Cove

Table showing a summary of my data re. progression of species impacted at Bear Cove, Port Hardy. Progression of symptoms in a leather star over 16 days at Bear Cove, Port Hardy. (Click to enlarge.) © 2014 Jackie Hildering

Progression of symptoms in a leather star over 16 days at Bear Cove, Port Hardy. (Click to enlarge.)© 2014 Jackie Hildering

Progression of symptoms in a leather star over 16 days at Bear Cove, Port Hardy. (Click to enlarge.)© 2014 Jackie Hildering

Wasted. What is happening to the sea stars of the NE Pacific Ocean?

Green Urchins grazing on Split Kelp. ©Jackie Hildering.

Last update: November 13, 2018

Where to relay sea star data  (of great value in understanding the range, extent and potentially, contributing factors):


Sea Star Wasting Disease (SSWD) summary:

August 2018 – Ochre Stars and Sunflower Stars being documented with SSWD after a short period where it appeared the disease had abated (specifically to date, to my knowledge, at Sechelt, Indian Arm, Whidbey Island).

Additional research by Hewsen et al has found that, while a virus appears associated with the disease in Sunflower Stars, the situation is more complex and the virus does not appear to be the cause in other sea star species.  The cause is “likely a complex tango of diverse potential pathogens and environmental conditions” / “We speculate that SSWD may represent a syndrome of heterogeneous etiologies [causes] between geographic locations, between species, or even within a species between locations.”
Those considered in the paper in addition to viruses: Drought / excessive rainfall; freshwater toxins (transmitted by excessive rainfall post drought); temperature swings.
Does not let climate change off the hook. Quote by lead author: “Since some of those disease causes may include swings in temperature or precipitation, ultimately which may be related to climate change, we need to focus our efforts on remediating climate change . . ”
The paper suggests renaming the wasting disease to Asteroid Idiopathic Wasting Syndrome because the term correlates with an array of symptoms, “which is more correct for describing this situation, as there are likely multiple diseases present . . .”

Causes / stressors considered in the paper:

  • Drought / excessive rainfall ” . . . SSWD mass mortality onset occurred concomitant with or immediately following drought conditions in both the Salish Sea region and in central California. Likewise, onset of SSWD mass mortality in Oregon (which occurred after both the former regions) occurred during a period of drought . . .Rainfall events at the end of drought conditions potentially bring large amounts of contaminants from terrestrial and freshwater habitats into contact with coastal marine habitats.”
  • Freshwater toxins: ” . . .our observations demonstrate that freshwater-derived toxins were present in asteroids during the wasting event and may represent an additional source of organism stress.”
  • Swings in temperature: ” . . . some proportion of wasting may be influenced by warm and cool water temperature anomalies, and that wasting in some species occurs consistently with season (notably P. ochraceus [Ochre Star] and E. troscheli), our analysis could not identify a single or combination of parameters of environmental conditions that universally correspond with disease across multiple species or an entire geographic range.”

Research published in July 2018 (Burt et al) quantifies the importance of Sunflower Stars in maintaining kelp forests. Includes that the decline of Sunflower Stars  “corresponded to a 311% increase in medium urchins and a 30% decline in kelp densities”. See video below and news coverage on the research at this link.

Research published in June 2018 (Schiebelhut et al), specifically on Ochre Stars, found that the genetic makeup of the species has changed since the outbreak. Young Ochre Sea Stars are more similar genetically to adults who survived than to those who succumbed. This “may influence the resilience of this keystone species to future outbreaks”. The findings of an additional March 2018 paper (Miner et al) include ”  . . . we documented higher recruitment of Pochraceus [Ochre Stars] in the north than in the south, and while some juveniles are surviving (as evidenced by transition of recruitment pulses to larger size classes), post-SSWD survivorship is lower than during pre-SSWD periods.

Sources for the above:

Background information:

  • Has been raging since June 2013.
  • Unprecedented in both range, duration and number of species impacted – 20 species of sea star species since 2013 from Alaska to Mexico (local variation in intensity of the disease and which species are impacted the worst). It is one of the largest wildlife die-off events in recorded history.
  • A virus had been found in sick sea stars but this virus has been around for at least 72 years (was isolated in preserved sea stars). A stressor (or stressors) must be reducing the resistance of the sea stars to the virus.Virus is “Sea Star associated Densovirus” (SSaDV) (Hewson, et al  www.pnas.org/content/early/2014/11/12/1416625111.abstract ).
  • A correlation was found between increased temperature and death in sea stars but that other factors are likely play a role as well (Eisenlord, et al  www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4760142).
  • Another study found that the disease also progressed when temperatures have decreased. (Menge, et al  https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0157302)
  • Current situation: Varies by location and species of sea star. While there have been some “waves” of baby and juvenile sea stars, numbers of all species remain low and signs of wasting continue.
  • From my own observations on NE Vancouver Island: Here, Sunflower Stars are impacted the worst (the largest sea star in the NE Pacific Ocean with 20+ legs). Leather Stars may be more impacted than in other areas. Ochre Stars appear less impacted than in other areas. I have seen waves of Sunflower Star babies and juveniles. What I find most plausible is that the babies are the result of adults spawning at depth, where it is colder (reduced stressor). A stressor or stressors then reduces the resistance of the babies and juveniles in shallower water whereby they may succumb to SSWD.
  • In terms of ecosystem impacts, consider the important role of many sea stars as predators. I put forward that this can be likened to the death of many Sea Otters. With less sea stars there are more of their prey like mussels and clams. But, with less sea stars (especially Sunflower Stars), there are definitely more urchins which graze away more kelp. Thereby, there is less habitat for many species and a loss of biodiversity.
  • Why share this information? It is often marine species that testify to environmental problems first; that serve as indicators for the resources upon which we too depend. The hypothesis is that the sea stars have succumbed in an unprecedented way because of changed ocean conditions (stressors). For me, this is an additional motivator to do what I can to reduce impacts through impacts of carbon and harmful chemicals. 
  • My album of photos of sea stars with symptoms can be found at this Facebook link.

Update November 2018
Lloyd, M, Pespeni, M (2018) Microbiome shifts with onset and progression of Sea Star Wasting Disease revealed through time course sampling. Scientific Reports.

Update October 2018
Schultz, Jessica; Sea star wasting – update!. Coastal Ocean Research Institute (CORI) Oceanwatch – BC Edition

Update March 2018: Additional research referenced above:
Hewson I, Bistolas KSI, Quijano Cardé EM, Button JB, Foster PJ, Flanzenbaum JM, Kocian J and Lewis CK (2018) Investigating the Complex Association Between Viral Ecology, Environment, and Northeast Pacific Sea Star WastingFront. Mar. Sci. 5:77. doi: 10.3389/fmars.2018.00077.

Miner CM, Burnaford JL, Ambrose RF, Antrim L, Bohlmann H, Blanchette CA, et al. (2018) Large-scale impacts of sea star wasting disease (SSWD) on intertidal sea stars and implications for recovery. PLoS ONE 13(3): e0192870. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0192870

Update December 2017: Recent rash of astoundingly erroneous news articles suggesting that sea stars are all one “species” and that they are rebounding e.g.Starfish making comeback after syndrome killed millions

Update May 2016: New paper – Menge BA, Cerny-Chipman EB, Johnson A, Sullivan J, Gravem S, et al. (2016) Correction: Sea Star Wasting Disease in the Keystone Predator Pisaster ochraceus in Oregon: Insights into Differential Population Impacts, Recovery, Predation Rate, and Temperature Effects from Long-Term Research. PLOS ONE 11(6): e0157302. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0157302

Update February 2016:  New paper – Eisenlord, et al  : ” . . . reported that temperature plays a role in the prevalence of Sea Star Wasting Syndrome (SSWS). Analyses showed that risk of disease-associated death was correlated with sea star size as well as water temperature. In adults, time between emergence of disease symptoms and death was influenced by temperature. Experiments also showed that adult mortality was higher in the warmer water treatments. Although adults showed disease symptoms more quickly than juveniles, diseased juveniles perished more quickly. This study was conducted in Washington State, where high mortality rates were experienced during 2014 in many areas, which coincided with warm temperature anomalies. While this study explained some factors that lead to SSWS, their models indicate that other unknown factors are likely playing a role as well.” Source:  SSWS updates University of California at Santa Cruz

Update October 2016:  New paper – Montecino-Latorre D, Eisenlord ME, Turner M, Yoshioka R, Harvell CD, Pattengill-Semmens CV, et al. (2016) Devastating Transboundary Impacts of Sea Star Wasting Disease on Subtidal Asteroids. PLoS ONE 11(10): e0163190. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0163190 

Update April 2016: Concern about decrease in sea stars leading to more urchins and, thereby, less kelp. CBC News; April 25, 2016 Scientists study ecological fallout of sea star die-off – Marine scientists are studying kelp to see how starfish wasting disease is changing the ecosystem. Study upon which this article is based: Schultz JA, Cloutier RN, Côté IM. (2016) Evidence for a trophic cascade on rocky reefs following sea star mass mortality in British Columbia. PeerJ 4:e1980; https://doi.org/10.7717/peerj.1980

Update February 2016:  Cornell University study showing link between temperature and incidence of the Syndrome: Ochre star mortality during the 2014 wasting disease epizootic: role of population size structure and temperature, Reporting on the study includes this item on the front page of the Seattle times on February 21st:Scientists now link massive starfish die-off, warming ocean.”

Update January 21, 2016: Province: “Sea star wasting disease among worst wildlife die-offs say scientists. Includes: “”This is, if not the, certainly one of the biggest wildlife die-offs that have ever been recorded, and we’re not just talking marine die-offs.”

Update May 3 , 2015: Seattle Times; “Starfish babies offer glimmer of hope amid mass die-off”. Includes: ” . . . a few baby starfish offered a glimmer of hope for the creature’s recovery . . . .“the question is when these babies get big, will you expect them to die like the adults? . . . . Not all the sites have seen juveniles and it hasn’t been broad . . .One theory for why there are so many juveniles [at this site in Washington] is that when adult starfish were stressed from the wasting disease, they released millions of eggs and sperm, increasing the chances for fertilization. Ideal conditions in recent months have helped push those larvae to the shore, where they’re able to cling to hard surfaces such as rocks and pilings to grow . . . And the worst of the wasting disease might still be ahead in some places, including along Washington’s Olympic Coast, where it was first reported in June 2013.”

Update April 9, 2015: California – wasting symptoms being seen in urchins. http://news.nationalgeographic.com/2015/03/150401-urchins-sea-stars-monterey-bay-california-animals/

Sunflower star with sea star wasting syndrome. Photo - Neil McDaniel; www.seastarsofthepacificnorthwest.info

Sunflower star with sea star wasting syndrome. Tissue wastes away. Legs often break off and crawl away briefly before rotting away. Photo – Neil McDaniel; http://www.seastarsofthepacificnorthwest.info

Update March 1, 2015: While symptoms of Sea Star Wasting Syndrome are still being seen in BC and I have seen no adult Sunflower Stars in the sites I have been monitoring on NE Vancouver Island, in several areas in BC, we are beginning to see juvenile Sunflower Stars. Sunflower Stars are the species that appeared to be most impacted in many areas of BC. Where are the young Sunflower Stars coming from? It may be, and this is my speculation, that there are Sunflower Stars at depth that survived the Syndrome possibly because they were not exposed to the same stressors e.g. the water at depth may be colder. 

Update November 18, 2014:  Study published today – cause of Sea Star Wasting Syndrome a densovirus that has been present for at least 72 years? Why has it led to mass mortality now? What makes sense is that, like any virus, the incidents of “pathogenicity” depends on stressors (e.g. temperature change) and proximity of individuals. The virus has also been found in other echinoderms like urchins and sand dollars and it persists in sediment = can be transmitted by those vectors and there is the potential that the other echinoderms are/will be affected. See the study by Cornell University at the link below (lead author Ian Hewson). Includes “If SSaDV is the cause of the current SSWD event, it is unclear why the virus did not elicit wide disease outbreaks in the past during periods in which it was detected; however, there are several possible reasons why the current SSWD event is broader and more intense than previous occurrences. SSaDV may have been present at lower prevalence for decades and only became an epidemic recently due to unmeasured environmental factors not present in previous years that affect animal susceptibility or enhance transmission.”
http://www.pnas.org/content/early/2014/11/12/1416625111.abstract

Update December 2014: Seeing juvenile Sunflower Stars around Northern Vancouver Island. The hope is that there might be a deep, cold water reservoir of animals.  I suggest that this offers further support that increased temperature may be the stressor that has increased the pathogenicity of the virus.

Good coverage in a 7-minute radio interview
Science Friday; December 5, 2014: “What’s Killing West Coast Starfish?”  http://www.sciencefriday.com/segment/12/05/2014/what-s-killing-west-coast-starfish.html#path/segment/12/05/2014/what-s-killing-west-coast-starfish.html ] 

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Original blog November 10, 2013:

There has already been much reporting on the gruesome epidemic spreading like wildfire through several species of sea star in the NE Pacific Ocean.

“Sea star wasting syndrome” is incredibly virulent and is causing the mass mortality of some sea star species in British Columbia and beyond. “Sea stars go from “appearing normal” to becoming a pile of white bacteria and scattered skeletal bits is only a matter of a couple of weeks, possibly less than that” (Source #1).

Rotting pile of sunflower stars. Photo and descriptor - Neil McDaniel; www.seastarsofthepacificnorthwest.info

Rotting pile of sunflower stars. Photo and descriptor – Neil McDaniel; http://www.seastarsofthepacificnorthwest.info

What I have strived to do below is bundle the state of knowledge so far, relying heavily on the expertise of two extraordinary divers and marine naturalists: (1) Neil McDaniel, marine zoologist and underwater photographer / videographer who maintains a website on local sea stars and has put together A Field Guide to Sea Stars of the Pacific Northwestand (2) Andy Lamb, whose books include Marine Life of the Pacific Northwest.

I am hoping that kayakers, beach-walkers and fellow divers will help monitor and report on the spread of the disease via this link on the Vancouver Aquarium webpage but I am also hoping that all of us may learn from this tragedy that has impacted “one of the most iconic animals on the coast of British Columbia . . . more abundant and diverse in our waters than anywhere else in the world” (Source #3).

Sea star wasting syndrome reminds us of the fragility of ocean ecosystems; how very quickly disease could spread in the ocean; and how we are all empowered to reduce stressors that increase the likelihood of pathogens manifesting as disease or even that pathogens enter the environment (e.g. sewage).

Update January 18, 2014 – Video by Neil McDaniel showing the extent of the mortality in some parts of southern British Columbia.  Click here. 

Species impacted? (Update November 30th – Source #14)

High mortalities (note that the first 4 are members of the same family – the Asteriidae):

  1. Sunflower star (Pycnopodia helianthoideshardest hit in southern British Columbia. From communication with Neil McDaniel ” . . .so far I estimate it has killed tens, possibly hundreds of thousands of Pycnopodia in British Columbia waters.”
  2. Mottled star (Evasterias troschelii
  3. Giant pink star (Pisaster brevispinus)
  4. Ochre star aka purple star (Pisaster ochraceus)
  5. Morning sun star (Solaster dawsoni)

More limited mortalities:

  1. Vermillion star (Mediaster aequalis); video of an afflicted star here.
  2. Rainbow star (Orthasterias koehleri)
  3. Leather star (Dermasterias imbricata)
  4. Striped sun star (Solaster stimpsoni)
  5. Six-rayed stars (Leptasterias sp.)

Update January 21st, 2014: Possibly: Rose star (Crossaster papposus) – I have noted symptoms in this species on NE Vancouver Island as has Neil McDaniel in S. British Columbia).

Update November 20th: The Vancouver Aquarium reports on which sea stars are and are not affected in S. British Columbia: “The majority of those species affected by the sunflower star epidemic are members of the same sea star family” and that the closely related morning sun star and giant pink star appear to get infected after feeding these “meals”.  (Source #10, includes video).

Symptoms and progression of the syndrome:

Neil McDaniel shared the following 7 images for the progression of the disease in sunflower stars [Source #2 and #14]. See the end of this blog item for images showing symptoms in other sea star species as well as a 1 minute time-lapse clip showing the progression of the syndrome in a sunflower star over 7 hours. [Note that the progression of the Syndrome on NE Vancouver Island appears that it may be different from what has been observed further to the south.]

1. In this image most of the sunflower stars appear healthy “other than one just right of center frame is exhibiting the syndrome, looking “thinned-out” and emaciated.”

Click to enlarge. Photo and descriptor - Neil McDaniel; www.seastarsofthepacificnorthwest.info

Click to enlarge. Photo and descriptor – Neil McDaniel; http://www.seastarsofthepacificnorthwest.info

2. This images “shows this thinning in close-up. Note how distinct the edges of the rays look and how flat the star is.”

Photo and descriptor - Neil McDaniel; www.seastarsofthepacificnorthwest.info

Click to enlarge. Photo and descriptor – Neil McDaniel; http://www.seastarsofthepacificnorthwest.info

3. This image “shows how the body wall begins to rupture, allowing the gonads and pyloric caeca to spill out.” 

As the animals become more stressed, they often drop several rays (which wander off on their own for a while). At this point the body wall becomes compromised and the pyloric caeca and/or gonads may protrude through lesions. As things progress, the animals lose the ability to crawl and may even tumble down steep slopes and end up in pile at the bottom. Soon after they die and begin to rot
Photo and descriptor - Neil McDaniel; www.seastarsofthepacificnorthwest.info

Photo and descriptor – Neil McDaniel; http://www.seastarsofthepacificnorthwest.info

4. This image “shows the gonads breaking through holes in the body wall. At this point rays often break off and crawl away briefly.”

Photo and descriptor - Neil McDaniel; www.seastarsofthepacificnorthwest.info

Photo and descriptor – Neil McDaniel; http://www.seastarsofthepacificnorthwest.info

5. As things progress, the animals lose the ability to crawl [and hold grip surfaces] and may even tumble down steep slopes and end up in pile at the bottom. Soon after they die and begin to rot.

Photo and descriptor - Neil McDaniel; www.seastarsofthepacificnorthwest.info

Photo and descriptor – Neil McDaniel; http://www.seastarsofthepacificnorthwest.info

6. The bacteria Beggiatoa then takes over and consumes all of the organic matter, leaving a scattering of skeletal plates on the bottom. The syndrome develops quickly and in only one to two weeks animals can go from appearing healthy to a white mat of bacteria and skeletal plates

Photo and descriptor - Neil McDaniel; www.seastarsofthepacificnorthwest.info

Photo and descriptor – Neil McDaniel; http://www.seastarsofthepacificnorthwest.info

7. This image “shows an individual star that is being consumed by mat bacteria.”

Photo and descriptor - Neil McDaniel; www.seastarsofthepacificnorthwest.info

Photo and descriptor – Neil McDaniel; http://www.seastarsofthepacificnorthwest.info

The 1-minute time-lapse video below shows the progression of the Syndrome in a sunflower star over 7 hours.

Cause(s)?
To date (January 2014), the cause (s) have not yet been identified. Scientific opinion appears to be that most likely the cause is one or more viruses or bacteria that have not yet been identified (more advanced investigations like DNA sequencing and metagenomics are now underway at Cornell University – Source #18 and #19) but toxins and environmental factors have not been ruled out as the primary cause or confounding causes (Source #18). As with any pathogen (like the flu virus), the expression of a pathogen as disease is influenced by number and proximity of individuals and could be exacerbated by environmental stressors. It is NOT radiation [Source #18, #19 and others].

Using cutting-edge DNA sequencing and metagenomics, Hewson is analyzing the samples for viruses as well as bacteria and other protozoa in order to pinpoint the infectious agent among countless possibilities.

“It’s like the matrix,” Hewson said. “We have to be very careful that we’re not identifying something that’s associated with the disease but not the cause.”

    • ”In previous outbreaks the “proximal cause” was found to a vibrio bacterium but “a recent wasting event on the east coast of the United States has been attributed to a virus  . . . such events are often associated with warmer than typical water temperatures . . . Please note that we do not know what is causing Sea Star Wasting Syndrome, and the cause may be different in different regions  . . .  the period prior to Wasting was characterized by warm water temperatures” (University of California Santa Cruz, Source #4).
    • Bates et al reported on an outbreak of wasting syndrome in ochre stars in Barkley sound in 2008. This included conducting lab experiments finding that the “prevalence and infection intensity were always higher in warm temperature treatments” and that “small increases in temperature could drive mass mortalities of Pisaster [ochre stars] due to wasting disease.” [Source #13 and #14]
    • “Do not believe this is related to a warming trend” (Source #18).
    • “Overpopulation” of sunflower stars appears to be a factor with outbreaks occurring where there is a high abundance of sea stars. “Often when you have a population explosion of any species you end up with a disease outbreak” (Source #5). “This could be perfectly normal as a way to control overpopulation” (Source #18).
    • “Some initial samples sent to DFO [Department of Fisheries and Oceans] and UBC [University of British Columbia] have not isolated a specific causative agent for this sea star die off. More samples are being collected and additional tests will be conducted” (Source #2 and #7). Viruses are notoriously difficult to detect. Cornell University (New York) has begun viral and bacterial culturing (Source #8). Updates will be provided here as they become available. See Source #14 for the results of pathology reports from October 4, November 12 and November 13.
    • Quote from Drew Harvell, a Cornell University professor of ecology and evolutionary biology who studies marine diseases: “these kinds of events are sentinels of change. When you get an event like this, I think everybody will say it’s an extreme event and it’s pretty important to figure out what’s going on . . . Not knowing is scary . . . If a similar thing were happening to humans, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention would commit an army of doctors and scientists to unraveling the mystery.” (Source #12)
    • Fukushima is a contributing factor?! There is no data to date to support this and, while of course radiation benefits nothing, I worry that pointing the finger away from ourselves takes away from the opportunity to recognize and act on how we all contribute to ocean stressors such as increasing temperature. From Source #19 – “scientists see Fukushima as an unlikely culprit because the die-offs are patchy, popping up in certain places like Seattle and Santa Barbara and not in others, such as coastal Oregon, where wasting has only been reported at one location.”
    • Ballast water? “From Source #19- “Others have wondered if a pathogen from the other side of the world may have hitched a ride in the ballast water of ocean-going ships. Scientists say this fits with the fact that many of the hot spots have appeared along major shipping routes. However, the starfish in quiet Monterey Bay, Calif. have been hit hard, whereas San Francisco’s starfish are holding strong.”

Range and timeline?

  • [Update December 21, 2013 – The Syndrome has been documented in sites from Alaska to the Mexican border – with gaps in knowledge especially off central and northern BC. See data acquired through the University of California, Santa Cruz on this map (Source #4) and the data acquired through the Vancouver Aquarium on this map (Source #3).]
  • June 2013 – First noted in the intertidal zone in ochre stars along the Washington Coast. “As of  December, signs of wasting had been observed at 45 of 84 MARINe sites [USA – Multi-Agency Rocky Intertidal Network] sampled since summer 2013, spanning the entire coast from Alaska to San Diego but varying in intensity from low levels of infection to mass mortality” [and with large gaps in data especially in northern British Columbia]. (Source #17). See map (Source #4) documenting the Syndrome in ochre stars in some locations from Alaska to the Mexican Border.
  • Late August 2013 – first reported in the sub-tidal in Howe Sound (Whytecliff and Kelvin Grove) by recreational diver Jonathan Martin (his photos here; video here). Sunflower stars were the main species impacted.
  • Mass mortality noted in Indian Arm in early October. “By late October the syndrome had been reported from the Gulf Islands, around Nanaimo and into Puget Sound and the San Juan Islands. It appears to be spreading throughout the entire Strait of Georgia and Puget Sound.” [Source #14].
  • First detected in the sub-tidal in sunflower stars in Washington State as of late October (Source #11 and #17). See a video here of a site in West Seattle before and after the outbreak. Update December 22nd: First reported off Whidbey Island, Washington.
  • Update December 21st: I am very sad to report that I have now found afflicted animals on NE Vancouver Island (Bear Cove, Port Hardy). Please see my blog at this link for photos, details and updates on the progression of the Syndrome on NE Vancouver Island].
  • Update January 19th, 2014: Morning sunstar with symptoms found in Campbell River [Reported by Dylan Smith].
  • No outbreaks on the west coast of Vancouver Island [Source #14].
  • “A smaller and isolated Atlantic outbreak, at points off Rhode Island and Maine, has also been noted.” (Source #12).
  • With regard to finding sunflower stars with the syndrome in Sechelt Inlet “This sighting is both disturbing and perplexing for a couple of reasons. First, Sechelt Inlet is hydrographically quite isolated from the rest of the Strait of Georgia, being a nearly land-locked fjord with minimal water exchange through Sechelt Rapids. Secondly [in Sechelt Inlet] Pycnopodia is a common sea star, but by no means abundant and certainly not found in anything near the incredible densities (up to 11/square metre) that we have encountered at the Defence Islands in Howe Sound” (Source #1). Jeff Marliave (VP of Marine Sciences at the Vancouver Aquarium) relates that the epicentre of the outbreak in Sechelt Inlet appears to be Egmont and that this correlates with a high abundance of sunflower stars there (Source #8).
  • Baby sea stars now seem to be coming back to areas where adult sunflower stars have been wiped out (Source #18).
  • You can aid understanding of the range and spread by inputting your data at this link on the Vancouver Aquarium webpage.

Has this happened before?
Never to this large a scale. “Although similar sea star wasting events have occurred previously, a mortality event of this magnitude, with such broad geographic reach has never before been documented.” (Source #17).

  • “Southern California in 1983-1984 and again (on a lesser scale) in 1997-98” (Source #4 and #13)
  • Florida (Source #5).
  • Update November 30: Sunflower die offs [on much smaller scale] have been noted in the past in Barkley Sound. In 2008 ochre star die offs were documented in Barkley Sound. In 2009 Bates et. al. reported on this and observed that the prevalence of disease “was highly temperature sensitive and that populations in sheltered bays appeared to sustain chronic, low levels of infection.” (Source #14 and #15).
  • “Similar events have occurred elsewhere over the last 30 years. Sea stars have perished in alarming numbers in Mexico, California and other localities” (Source #2).
  • “In July, researchers at the University of Rhode Island reported that sea stars were dying in a similar way from New Jersey to Maine .  . a graduate student collected starfish for a research project and then watched as they “appeared to melt” in her tank” (Source #5).

Ecosystem impact?

The impacted sea star species are carnivores, feeding high up in the food chain. This massive die off may lead to shifts / changes in marine ecosystems since there will be less predation by the affected sea star species (Source #9 and #12). Their prey includes: bivalves like mussels, marine snails, urchins and sea cucumbers.

    • “Once that disease is in the environment, it can be difficult to get the population [of the affected sea stars] back” (Source #5).
    • Ecologists consider sunflower and ochre stars to be keystone speices because they have a disproportionately large influence on the distribution and abundance of many other species. Scientists anticipate that such a large mortality event in keystone species could change the intertidal and sub tidal seascapes . . . Previous examples of large-scale, mass mortality of individual marine species have resulted in dramatic ecosystem-wide changes” (Source #17).
    • “Sea stars are voracious predators, like lions on the seafloor. They gobble up mussels, clams, sea cucumbers, crab and even other starfish. That’s why they’re called a keystone species, meaning they have a disproportionate impact on an ecosystem, shaping the biodiversity of the seascape. “These are ecologically important species,”  . . . “To remove them changes the entire dynamics of the marine ecosystem. When you lose this many sea stars it will certainly change the seascape underneath our waters.” (Source #19)
    • Seeing baby sunflower stars back where adults have been wiped out in Howe Sound. Getting species like agarum kelp back (good habitat that was suppressed due to previous abundance of sea stars) but also seeing green urchins come back (will graze on kelp like sea stars do). (Source #18).

Video (7 min) on the state of knowledge on the Syndrome (January 2014) and showing the progression of the Syndrome in sunflower stars around Washington / Southern BC.

Sources:

  1. Email communication with Neil McDaniel.
  2. Email communication with Andy Lamb.
  3. http://www.vanaqua.org/act/research/sea-stars
  4. http://www.eeb.ucsc.edu/pacificrockyintertidal/data-products/sea-star-wasting/
  5. http://commonsensecanadian.ca/alarming-sea-star-die-off-west-coast/
  6. http://www.businessinsider.com/disease-ravaging-west-coast-starfish-2013-11
  7. Shellfish Health Report from the Pacific Biological Station (DFO) conducted on 1 morning sun star and 7 sunflower stars collected on October 9, 2013 at Croker Island, Indian Arm; case number 8361.
  8. Email communication with Jeff Marliave.
  9. http://www.reef2rainforest.com/2013/11/09/disaster-deja-vu-all-over-again/
  10. http://www.aquablog.ca/2013/11/family-relations-in-starfish-wasting-syndrome/ 
  11. http://www.komonews.com/news/eco/Whats-causing-our-sea-stars-to-waste-away–231982671.html
  12. http://www.washingtonpost.com/national/health-science/sea-stars-are-wasting-away-in-larger-numbers-on-a-wider-scale-in-two-oceans/2013/11/22/05652194-4be1-11e3-be6b-d3d28122e6d4_story.html
  13. https://science.nature.nps.gov/im/units/medn/symposia/5th%20California%20Islands%20Symposium%20(1999)/Marine%20Ecology/Eckert_Sea_Star_Disease_Population_Decline.pdf
  14. Sea star wasting syndrome, Nov 30-13https://jackiehildering.files.wordpress.com/2013/11/sea-star-wasting-syndrome-nov-30-13.pdf 
  15. Bates AE, Hilton BJ, Harley, CDG 2009. Effects of temperature, season and locality on wasting disease in the keystone predatory sea star Pisaster ochraceus. Diseases of Aquatic Organisms Vol. 86:245-251 http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/20066959
  16. Video showing impacts in Elliott Bay, Seattle http://earthfix.info/flora-and-fauna/article/sea-stars-dying-off-west-seattle/
  17. University of California, Santa Cruz Press Release; December 22, 2013; Unprecedented Sea Star Mass Mortality Along the West Coast of North America due to Wasting Syndrome
  18. Vancouver Aquarium; January 21, 2014; Presentation – Mass Dying of Seastars in Howe Sound and Vancouver Harbour (Dr. Jeff Marliave and Dr. Marty Haulena).
  19. Earth Fix; January 30, 2014; Northwests starfish experiment gives scientists clues to mysterious mass die-offs 

Images showing symptoms in other sea star species:

Ochre star (aka purple star) with sea star wasting syndrome. Photo and descriptor - Neil McDaniel; www.seastarsofthepacificnorthwest.info Click to enlarge.

Ochre star (aka purple star) with sea star wasting syndrome. Photo and descriptor – Neil McDaniel; http://www.seastarsofthepacificnorthwest.info
Click to enlarge.

Mottled star with sea star wasting syndrome. Photo and descriptor - Neil McDaniel; www.seastarsofthepacificnorthwest.info Click to enlarge.

Mottled star with sea star wasting syndrome. Photo and descriptor – Neil McDaniel; http://www.seastarsofthepacificnorthwest.info
Click to enlarge.

Mottled star with sea star wasting syndrome. Photo and descriptor - Neil McDaniel; www.seastarsofthepacificnorthwest.info Click to enlarge.

Mottled star with sea star wasting syndrome. Photo and descriptor – Neil McDaniel; http://www.seastarsofthepacificnorthwest.info
Click to enlarge.

Mottled star with sea star wasting syndrome. Photo and descriptor - Neil McDaniel; www.seastarsofthepacificnorthwest.info Click to enlarge.

Mottled star with sea star wasting syndrome. Photo and descriptor – Neil McDaniel; http://www.seastarsofthepacificnorthwest.info
Click to enlarge.

Morning sun star with lesions indicating the onset of sea star wasting syndrome. Photo and descriptor - Neil McDaniel; www.seastarsofthepacificnorthwest.info Click to enlarge.

Morning sun star with lesions indicating the onset of sea star wasting syndrome. Photo and descriptor – Neil McDaniel; http://www.seastarsofthepacificnorthwest.info
Click to enlarge.

Giant pink star with sea star wasting syndrome. Photo and descriptor - Neil McDaniel; www.seastarsofthepacificnorthwest.info Click to enlarge.

Giant pink star with sea star wasting syndrome. Photo and descriptor – Neil McDaniel; http://www.seastarsofthepacificnorthwest.info
Click to enlarge.

What was once a giant pink star. Photo and descriptor - Neil McDaniel; www.seastarsofthepacificnorthwest.info Click to enlarge.

What was once a giant pink star. Photo and descriptor – Neil McDaniel; http://www.seastarsofthepacificnorthwest.info
Click to enlarge.

What’s At Stake – Images Speaking Louder Than Words

Three minutes of images speaking louder than words . . .

This short slide show of my images testifies to the astonishing marine biodiversity of Northern Vancouver Island and what is put at risk with projects like the Enbridge Northern Gateway Project which would bring super-tanker traffic of toxic bitumen and condensate to B.C.’s fragile coast, and to the waters on which we depend for oxygen, food, buffering of climate change gases, aesthetics and so much more.

I have submitted this slide show for inclusion on “Hope, the Whale”, a 25′ whale sculpture being brought to the Vancouver Enbridge public hearings (January 14 to 18, 2013) “to symbolize the expansive and growing community of people with a vision of an oil-free coast in BC. The sculpture is designed to be a welcoming, collaborative, visual, interactive and peaceful approach to supporting a healthy environment. The whale will amplify our a collective messages of hope and a vision for a healthy ocean, water, land, communities, green economy, cultures and people.” See this link to contribute your message.

For more information, see my testimony to the Joint Review Panel included in my blog item “Super Natural or Super Tanker?” at this link.

Success! No Tidal Turbines in Whale Epicentre

“KC” breaches in Blackney Pass. Photo: Hildering

As follow-up to last week’s call to action, “Tidal Turbines in Whale Epicentre? Hell No!” , I am so pleased to relay the following media release from myself, the OrcaLab and the proponent, SRM Projects Ltd

The short of it is, due to the efforts of many (including you) and the integrity and ethics of the proponent – the application for an investigative license for ocean power in whale critical habitat has been withdrawn. 

Please read further below.

 Media Coverage:

For details of how this resolve was achieved see this OrcaLab blog item. 

Humpback whale “KC” (BCY0291, born in 2002) breaching in Blackney Pass.
The investigative license application for ocean power has now been withdrawn for this area.
© 2012 Jackie Hildering; http://www.themarinedetective.ca