Join me in the cold, dark, life-sustaining NE Pacific Ocean to discover the great beauty, mystery and fragility hidden there.

Posts tagged ‘british columbia’

Decorator Crabs! The best-dressed in the NE Pacific Ocean.

Are you ready? I’ve been collecting these photos for a long time. Now, finally, I think I have enough to deliver this marine fashion show to you – the best dressed of the NE Pacific Ocean!

Decorator crabs are camo-crabs. They pluck bits of life from their surroundings and attach it to themselves. AND, if their surroundings change, they change their outfit.

Graceful Decorator Crab covered with hydroids including the “Raspberry Hydroid” which was only recognized as a new species in 2013 with the area near Telegraph Cove (Weynton Pass) being one of the few areas these colonies are known to live. ©Jackie Hildering.

This is highly functional fashion. Not only does this covering of life allow the crabs to hide from potential predators, it also apparently changes the way the crabs feel and taste in a way that deters their predators. Sponges taste bad or are even toxic to many predators and animals like hydroids and other “cnidarians” have stinging cells. Thereby, if you cover yourself with sponges or cnidarians, predators be gone!

Graceful Decorator Crab adorned with “Strawberry Anemones” (not actually an anemone species but a “corallimorph”. ©2017 Jackie Hildering.

Indeed, even though decorator crab species look like walking gardens, often what they attach are not algae but other animals – hydroids, sponges and bryozoans.

Additional bonuses of carrying other organisms on your back may be:

  • You have potential snacks within a pincher’s reach.
  • Your camouflage allows you to get closer to your prey.
  • You are carrying weapons!

From A Snail’s Odyssey: “Apart from passive camouflage from potential predators, other functions of the behaviour may include disguise for closer approach to prey, and provision of tools for active defense, such as a branches of hydroids containing functional stinging cells or pieces of sponges or tunicates containing toxic chemicals.”

Graceful Decorator Crab with snippets of sponge attached to his/her carapace (Hooded Nudibranchs in the background). This individual realized it had been seen and switched to the defence strategy of looking big since “so many fish predators are limited by the size of their mouths” (Source: Crabs and Shrimps of the Pacific Coast); ©Jackie Hildering.

Note too that not all growth on the back of crabs is the result of decorating and remember that crabs moult, crawling out the back of their shells in order to grow. Also from A Snail’s Odyssey:  “In some cases these camouflagings result from settlement of spores and larvae . . . . Passive buildup of growths is greater with increasing age as moulting frequency decreases.  Also, in many species there is a final or terminal moult which, if the species’ exoskeleton is receptive to settlement of larvae and spores, leads to an even greater build-up of cover.”

Graceful Decorator Crab adorned with (and atop of) Glove Sponge. ©Jackie Hildering.

“Spider crab” (superfamily Majoidea) species are the ones that most often adorn themselves. From Greg Jensen‘s Crabs and Shrimps of the Pacific Coast: “Many spider crabs . . . mask themselves with algae or encrusting organisms so that they can hide in plain sight. The decorator crabs are equipped with curved setae much like the hook part of Velcro fasteners: after shredding material a bit with their mandibles, they press it into place. The largest species tend to stop actively decorating once they outgrow most of their predators.”

Crab predators include the Giant Pacific Octopus and fish species like Cabezon, some rockfish, Surfperch, Wolf-Eel and the Staghorn Sculpin. Of course, at low tide, birds and mammals are also predators.

Hoping this adds to the wonder, connection and respect for our marine neighbours. Enjoy the rest of the show!

[For research on decorator crabs with great diagrams explaining how how attachment occurs see this link.]

Well that’s unique! Decorated with Sea Vases (species of tunicate). ©2017 Jackie Hildering.

Try not to smile!

Another Graceful Kelp Crab adorned with Raspberry Hydroids.

Here you can even see where the Graceful Decorator Crab has clipped off bits of sponge. AND s/he’s in the act of attaching clippings. ©Jackie Hildering.

Longhorn Decorator Crab. ©Jackie Hildering.

Heart Crab (I THINK) – not likely to have decorated itself but rather this is the result of the settlement and accumulation of organisms = a walking ecosystem. ©Jackie Hildering.

Graceful Kelp Crab with adornment of Sea Lettuce. ©Jackie Hildering

Graceful Decorator Crab in front of a Painted Sea Star. S/he had just moved from being camouflaged among kelp to moving in front of the sea star. ©Jackie Hildering.

This Graceful Decorator Crab has adorned him/herself with bits of Barnacle Nudibranch egg masses for camouflage. You can see the egg masses behind the crab.

Decorator crab species in the NE Pacific Ocean include:

  • Graceful Decorator Crab – Oregonia gracilis
  • Graceful Kelp Crab – Pugettia gracilis 
  • Longhorn Decorator Crab – Chorilia longipes
  • Other species too will sometimes put a bit of camouflage on their rostrum e.g. Northern Kelp Crab – Pugettia producta

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

TMD Memes.001


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

Remarkable Giant Pacific Octopus and Wolf-Eel Encounter

Trust me, you are going to love the video below!

Giant Pacific Octopus passing over a mature male Wolf Eel in his den. See video below. ©Jackie Hildering

Giant Pacific Octopus passing over a mature male Wolf-Eel in his den. See video below. ©Jackie Hildering

It is one of the most remarkable encounters I have witnessed in all my dives.

It’s a fortunate enough thing to be able to watch a large Giant Pacific Octopus when it is hunting. In this encounter, the octopus passes directly over a mature male Wolf-Eel in his den. THEN, a Decorator Warbonnet emerges as well.

It was an exciting day in this wonderful marine neighbourhood.

I hope this 3-minute clip allows you to share in the awe and excitement.

For me, this was the NE Pacific Ocean equivalent of seeing a giraffe, elephant and rhino in close proximity.

Video and photos contributed by dive buddies Katie Morgan and Diane Reid while on our trip with God’s Pocket Dive Resort.

  • For more information on Wolf-Eels (including that they are not an eel at all), see my previous blog here.
  • For more information on Giant Pacific Octopuses, click here for previous blogs and here for a blog specifically on hunting in Giant Pacific Octopus.

Whale Watching – Not “Up-Close-and-Personal!” How to make a good choice?

Click here to jump to the summary of points to consider in making the best choice for a whale-watching company.

This blog is catalyzed by advertisements for whale watching that I perceive to be extremely exploitive of whales, suggesting high adrenaline “up-close-and-personal” encounters.

The problem with such marketing, where boats are in very close proximity with whales, is threefold:

1. It feeds consumer demand for a whale watching experience that is not good for the whales. Close boats (including kayaks) have greater potential for stressing whales; disturbing whales’ natural behaviour; and increasing habituation to vessels whereby risks such as vessel strike are increased. These potential effects have been proven through scientific peer-reviewed research (see references below).

Pacific White-Sided Dolphins with new born calves. ©Jackie Hildering

Pacific White-Sided Dolphins with newborn calves. ©Jackie Hildering; telephoto and cropped image.

2. It creates false expectations and miseducates people. There are Marine Mammal Regulations and guidelines for respectful, legal and safe marine mammal viewing which include distance limits (200m for Orca and 100m for other cetaceans). However, if people see advertising promoting close interactions between boats and whales, they may believe this is what is to be expected on their tour. Thereby, companies who choose to use this marketing approach are creating increased pressure on whale watching boat operators to fulfill these expectations. And note, it is NOT okay to position your boat in order to “have the whales come to us.”

There will be those who succumb to such pressure, and who will conduct their vessel in a way that violates the regulations and thus creates greater disturbance for the animals. I solidly believe that the average consumer wishes to marvel at whales in the wild in a way that is as benign and natural as possible. Were they to know the potential impacts of close encounters or that the company they had chosen was “blurring” what is right, it would very much taint the experience for them.

Pacific Habour Seal mother nursing her newborn. The pup is so young you can see his/her umbilical cord. ©Jackie Hildering

Pacific Harbour Seal mother nursing her newborn. The pup is so young you can see his/her umbilical cord. ©Jackie Hildering; telephoto and cropped image.

3. It creates a “marketplace” where other companies with more solid ethics face the dilemma of how to counteract such advertising and aid consumers in making a better choice. Sometimes, unexpectedly whales do surface within the viewing distance limits but to promote this feeds the “get-up-close-and-personal” monster.
In order to solve this dilemma and counteract the above two points as well, there are whale watching associations where operators have agreed not to show their boats in close proximity to whales.

Resting line of the A12 matriline of "Northern Resident" orca (inshore fish-eating population). ©Jackie Hildering

Resting line of the A12 matriline of “Northern Resident” orca (inshore fish-eating population). ©Jackie Hildering; telephoto and cropped image.


Granted, we’ve come a long, long way.  Public attitude towards whales has changed drastically. We’re not shooting whales anymore and we’re not putting them in captivity. Whaling only ended in British Columbia in 1967 and the live capture of orca only ended in 1973/74 (thank you Dr. Michael Bigg).

Now, thankfully, our values and knowledge have largely evolved to where we respect whales as sentient, social, intelligent animals with culture.

So how to make a good choice?

How to choose a whale watching experience that has the least impact on the environment with the greatest potential for learning and conservation?   How to navigate the sea of choice when confronted with the vast array of variables such as location, vessel type, crew, and advertising strategies?

Humpback Whales resting at the surface. ©Jackie Hildering

Humpback Whales resting at the surface. ©Jackie Hildering


Know that the great truth is that the best possible experience is that your viewing of wildlife happens as if you were not there.

The ideal would be to watch cetaceans from land with interpretation from a knowledgeable guide but there are very few places where whales pass by with predictability.

Going out in a private motorized vessel is also an option but most often means a larger noise and fossil fuel footprint per person and not having the many benefits of knowledgeable crew who can educate and operate the vessel in a way that is more benign. Data collected by the Cetus Research and Conservation Society supports that it is by far more often the case that recreational boaters violate the guidelines / regulations than do commercial whale watch operators.

See the little fin at the far left? That is "Cutter" (A86) as a calf in 2006 nursing mother "Clio" (A50). Sibling "Bend" (A72) is the whale with the injured dorsal fin. Bend now has a calf of her own. A30 matriline of "Northern Resident" orca population (inshore fish- eaters) ©Jackie Hildering.

See the little fin at the far left? That is “Cutter” (A86) as a calf in 2006 nursing mother “Blinkhorn” (A54). Sibling “Bend” (A72) is the whale with the injured dorsal fin. A30 matriline of “Northern Residents (inshore fish- eaters) ©Jackie Hildering; telephoto and cropped image.


Of course, it would help consumers and marine wildlife greatly if there were a effective system in place that guarded high standards of operation and that sufficient resources were made available for effective monitoring, education and enforcement of boaters around marine wildlife. Sadly, these resources are not available whereby consumer awareness and operator ethics become all the more important, as does reporting violations to the DFO Incident Reporting Line at 1-800-465-4336.

Steller Sea Lions socializing at the haul-out. ©Jackie Hildering.

Steller Sea Lions socializing at the haul-out. ©Jackie Hildering.


So, here we go . . .

Summary of points for consideration in making a whale watching choice that is better for the whales and environmental sustainability in general.

1. Location:

How close is the vessel departure point from the area where whales are likely to be i.e. how long and how fast will you need to travel? This affects how large your fossil fuel and noise footprint will be.

2. Crew:

How much successful experience and training and what qualifications does the crew have in:

  • Operating vessels around whales?
  • Providing science-based information that would make whale-watching count for the sake of inspiring greater conservation efforts rather than just be about opportunities for photography?

3. Vessel Related:

  • Does the vessel type allow for effective delivery of educational information?
  • How large is the vessel?  This is highly relevant in determining the noise and fossil fuel footprint per person as is the fuel efficiency of the vessel and the engine type.
  • Usually more difficult to determine unless specified on the company’s website: Is the engine of a design where noise is reduced? Do operators shut off the engine whenever possible?

4. Ethics and Approach:

Does the company:

  • Have a holistic and comprehensive approach to environmental sustainability e.g. noise reduction measures, avoiding disposable goods, use of organic, energy-efficient, and biodegradable products, etc?
  • Contribute to marine conservation and research efforts e.g. sightings data being relayed to research initiatives, financial or in-kind support, etc.
  • Use language and images, in advertising and social media, that are respectful of the marine wildlife and the guidelines for viewing them? This includes NOT including imagery that feeds the “up-close-and-personal” monster. 
Mammal-eating orca T39 just having successfully killed a Pacific White-Sided Dolphin. Splash on the left is her calf just having entered the water before her. Splashes in the background, right in front of Telegraph Cove, are the dolphins that got away. ©Jackie Hildering

Mammal-eating orca T39 just having successfully killed a Pacific White-Sided Dolphin. The splash on the left is her calf just having entered the water, learning to hunt alongside her. The splashes in the background, right in front of Telegraph Cove, are the dolphins that got away. ©Jackie Hildering; telephoto and cropped image.


My life radically changed after going on just one whale-watching trip many years ago. I certainly know how profoundly transformative and powerful an experience it can be.

When done right, ensuring guidelines / regulations are adhered to and solid conservation messaging is shared, whale-watching guests are able to have the best possible experience. An experience that is benign and respectful can lead to greater caring; a sense of connection to the animals and the life-sustaining ocean for which they are ambassadors; and the inspiration to undertake action that is better for the environment (and therefore, ourselves).

Consumers have very significant power to shape how whale watching is conducted. By supporting companies striving to operate in a way that is best for the whales and the environment at large, you are not feeding the “get-up-close-and-personal” monster. The resulting reward is to know that your experience will be as wild as can be – best for you, best for the whales and best in not rewarding those who compromise their ethics and the privilege of being a conduit for people to experience the raw beauty of seeing whales in the wild, where they belong.

So please, consider the above points and take particular notice of whale watching companies’ advertisements.  Choosing a company whose marketing reflects respectful whale watching is the first step to ensuring your experience will be as good as you want it to be.

Pacific Harbour Seal about to give birth. ©Jackie Hildering

Pacific Harbour Seal about to give birth. ©Jackie Hildering; telephoto and cropped image.


If you witness an incident of concern regarding marine life, please call the DFO Incident Reporting Line at 1-800-465-4336.

Resting line of "Northern Resident" orca (inshore fish-eaters). ©Jackie Hildering

Resting line of “Northern Resident” orca (inshore fish-eaters). ©Jackie Hildering; telephoto and cropped image.

Pacific Habour Seal resting at the surface. ©Jackie Hildering

Pacific Harbour Seal resting at the surface. ©Jackie Hildering; telephoto and cropped image.


How to Save a Life?

Today, myself and 2 other members of the Top Island Econauts Dive Club, may have saved a life – a human life.

We were in the right place, at the right time, doing the right thing, and were able to save a woman who had become very disoriented while mushroom picking. Had she continued in the direction she thought she needed to go, she would have moved further and further away from where her partner was. When we found her, there was only about another 1.5 hours of daylight left and it is unlikely that any other boats would have been in the area, let alone that they would have heard or seen her.

I am compelled to write about this because I learned a thing or two about enhancing one’s chances for rescue and survival today and it may be of value to share that here. But also, candidly, writing about this helps me reflect on the many “what ifs” around this experience. (Note that I will not share the name of the individual nor the location as I feel this would be a violation of her privacy.)

Of course no one plans to get lost in the woods nor to have an accident but what was shocking to me was how easily we could have missed her.

This individual was quite outdoor savvy and had a system for checking in with her partner; they had radios (they failed); and she had a dog with her (who decided to go home).

She was lost and managed to make her way out of the dense and isolated forest to the edge of the ocean, bettering her chances of someone seeing her . . . but only if a boat went by.

We did go by on our way to the dive site but heard and saw nothing. The engine was on, we were about 1.3 km away, and she was dressed in dark blue and green.

Photo taken today, long before the rescue. Snow on the mountain tops. © 2013 Jackie Hildering

Photo taken today, long before the rescue. Snow on the mountain tops. ©2013 Jackie Hildering

The dive was not even supposed to happen today! It was planned for yesterday but the weather was predicted to be poor so it was rescheduled for this afternoon.

But then, we only had two divers available meaning there was no one to drive the boat. Had Club member and fellow diver Gord Jenkins not selflessly offered to drive that boat so that Andy Hanke and I could dive, we would never have been on the water today.

But THEN .  .  . we had trouble with the Dive Club boat’s engines whereby we decided it would not be safe enough to take out that boat. We were just going to dive from shore.

But then, I suggested that we could take out my little 17′ vessel named “Fluke” (this is poetic – you’ll see). If we had we had more than 3 people, there is no way we would have had the option to do this. My boat is too small.

And then, there was the decision of which dive to do. Randomly (?) . . . .we chose for the site that ended up being closest to where the lost woman would emerge from the forest.

AND THEN, while Andy and I were diving, Gord heard something far away – some strange bird, a seal, a bear cub? It was a one syllable “blaring like” sound. She would not even have been able to see the boat from where she was, and yet she called.

When we surfaced (the tender boat cannot leave divers), Gord slowly idled the boat toward where he thought he had heard the sound. He was a bit apologetic, not sure if he had really heard something from so far away. We stopped the engine, then Andy and I heard it too – a one syllable sound. A bird?! I made the comment that it sounded like such a “plaintive” call. I got out my binoculars, I could see nothing. We proceeded and then shut off the engine again to make sure we were still heading in the right direction. We heard the one syllable call again. Still, even with binoculars I saw nothing.

Not until we were about 30 m away did we see her – the source of the sound, the woman whose story you have now already heard. Gord saved her life.

I don’t know how he could have heard her, initially from so far away. This dear woman has very powerful lungs and was calling to save her life but still, the acoustics of the area proved to be very favourable allowing Gord to hear her from such a distance.

What if that had not been the case? What if Gord had dismissed the sound he thought he heard?  What if we had dived yesterday (we saw no other boats the whole time we were out today)? What if we had more than 3 people and had not been able to take my boat out? Fluke? I don’t know. This is when my science brain gets all dizzy. I just don’t know.

Oh yeah, and then when we had her in my boat and were heading out to take her back to her partner . . . about 50 Pacific White-Sided Dolphins happened to storm the boat, leaping in front and alongside it. Despite the stress of what we had just experienced, it made me laugh out in glee. Really, that happened. I can’t make this stuff up. As if my brain wasn’t dizzy enough already.

There is so much I can’t explain here, about synchronicity, chance, “what ifs”, and the feelings for which I cannot even find words.

But what I can clearly express is what I learned today, which is that the easiest way to save a life is – to save your own.

I strongly abide by the guidelines for safety and survival on the water. But, in learning from this experience, the importance of the following is so very clear:

  • When in the woods wear (or having something with you that has) very bright, non-camouflage colours;
  • Always carry a whistle;
  • Carry a light, mirror and/or small flares, and matches;
  • Always have a waterproof layer of clothing with you;
  • Take a compass or have access to GPS;
  • If needing to cry out – use more than one syllable; and
  • Like the woman from today who is now warm and dry, no matter how distant or how small the chance of rescue . . . never give up.

A World Without Salmon . . . .?!

 Spawning Sockeye salmon © 2006 Bruce Paterson

Spawning Sockeye salmon ©2006 Bruce Paterson

Dear readers, the following is a rework of a little rhyme I wrote in 2009.

Many of you will recall that 2009 was such a bad year for wild salmon in British Columbia that it led to the $26 million Cohen Inquiry into the Decline of the Fraser River Sockeye.

 Spawning Sockeye salmon © 2006 Bruce Paterson

Spawning Sockeye salmon ©2006 Bruce Paterson

And yet, there has been no solid action on the 75 recommendations resulting from that Inquiry and government has yet to take any sort of dedicated or meaningful action for the wild salmon – and all that depends on them.

The attempted messaging in my little poem may be all the more relevant now with the threat of tanker traffic coming to our fragile Coast.

The good news, I believe, is that with such threats more and more of us are united in understanding that, while resource use is a necessity, it has to be sustainable. It is impossible to have infinite economic growth on a finite planet.

With sincere apologies to Dr. Seuss:

A world without salmon would be oh so sad,
This is very important, so listen here Dad!

Without salmon, we will have broken the link,
That Nature intended to keep us in the Pink.
(And Sockeye, and Chum, and Chinook and Coho!)

Salmon bring the wealth of the ocean back to the Coast,
Right back to their birthplace so without them – we’re toast!

Their bodies are gifts to the future – that’s really key,
Delivering food for their babies and even the trees.

They feed fish-eating orca, sea lion and eagle,
Wolf, seal, deer, shark and . . . an occasional beagle!

They help bring the tourists. They fill fishers’ nets.
There ought to be enough so that all needs are met.

So little investment, so great the return.
Safe passage, and food – this, salmon surely earn?

But, instead of precaution, loud voices at desks,
Say, “Why it’s Nature that’s made this big mess.”

“It’s salinity, cycles . . . the phase of the moon!
Or some other reason we’ll think up real soon.”

What possible gain would justify such a gamble?
The cost of losing wild salmon would be so substantial.

Without salmon, grizzles stare into empty rivers,
No fat salmon to save them from winter shivers.

The orca diminish without their Chinook,
Peanut-shaped foreheads reveal this tragic truth.

And Bobby and Susie and even Aunt Myrtle,
Are left holding fishing poles, till they turn purple.

Shhhh can you hear that? No, I don’t hear a thing,
For without salmon, birds around rivers don’t sing.

The People of the Salmon were able to thrive.
Dance, song, carvings  . . . the wisdom to know what keeps us alive.

Salmon are the glue in a vastly connected web,
Why without them big trees would even be dead.

Then, there goes habitat, oxygen production and buffering of greenhouse gas.
Why to flirt with the health of salmon you would really have to be an  . . . . (you know).

The survival of salmon shows how we humans are doing.
Do we know our place on the planet? No. Nature is booing!

The solution is simple. It really isn’t hard.
It’s not tree hugger verses resource user. Let down your guard!

Logger, storekeeper, teacher, and you under that streetlight!
We keepers of paradise need to unite in what’s right.

Make a stand for the salmon, the whales, wolves and Coast.
We all know clean water and food is what matters most.

Choose for sustainability, not short-term economic gain.
Otherwise explaining things to our children could really be a pain.

Use vote, vision and voice, to help wild things grow.
And when it comes to gambling with salmon – just say “No!”

Then, because a whole lot of us care a whole awful lot,
It will be clear that BC’s natural splendour can’t be bought.

The importance of salmon ©2016 Jackie Hildering

The importance of salmon ©2016 Jackie Hildering

Since writing this blog, I have been asked “Salmon feed trees?”. Indeed, when they spawn in their natal rivers which can be more than a 1,000 km from the sea, salmon bring the richness of the ocean not only to animals but to plants.  The nutrients from their bodies feed the trees and plants including  . . . salmon berry! Animals like bears further the reach of salmon nutrients by taking spawned-out salmon from the rivers deeper into the forest where they can feed undisturbed. They eat their favourite bits and leave about 50% of the carcass in the forest which benefits the plants, song birds, and even animals like pine martens. Of course, bears also poop in the woods, which leaves more salmon nutrients in the forest. So the bears are like gardeners, bringing fertilizer much deeper into the forest!

It was initially Tom Reimchen’s research of the early 1990s that brought the knowledge of “Salmon Forests” to the world. He quantified how much salmon was in the trees by measuring the amount of “marine derived nitrogen”.  That research has expanded to where nitrogen and carbon isotopes are measured to quantify the uptake of salmon-derived nutrients by mosses, herbs, shrubs, trees, insects, songbirds, and wolves. So while salmon don’t grow on trees  . . . trees most definitely grow on salmon.

This knowledge solved the mystery of how you can have giant trees in a rain forest when nutrients get washed away by the rain. It’s the salmon who replenish the nutrients by delivering the richness of the sea through their spawning behaviour – just the way Nature intended. And of course, without those giant trees – imagine the reduced habitat and production of oxygen and buffering of carbon dioxide.

This makes clear how far reaching the role of salmon is; how interconnected the web of life is, and just how much depends on the health of wild salmon.  No better man to fully explain this “exquisite interconnectedness” than Dr. David Suzuki. See the 5 minute clip below. There is also a David Suzuki children’s book called “Salmon Forest.”

I have also been asked, “Deer eat salmon?!” They do. They feed directly on the spawned out carcasses of salmon and also benefit indirectly by feeding on the vegetation that has been fed by salmon.

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

Where to relay sea star data  (of great value in understanding the survival, species impacted, range, and potentially, contributing factors of Sea Star Wasting Syndrome:


Last update: December 4, 2022Screen Shot 2022-12-04 at 22.17.02

December 2022:  Roadmap to recovery for the sunflower sea star (Pycnopodia helianthoides) along the west coast of North America. The Nature Conservancy (Heady et al). 
From the Executive Summary:
“A sea star wasting disease (SSWD) event beginning in 2013 reduced the global population of sunflower sea stars by an estimated ninety-four percent, triggering the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) to classify the species as Critically Endangered. Declines of ninety-nine to one hundred percent were estimated in the outer coast waters of Baja California, California, Oregon, and Washington. From the Salish Sea to the Gulf of Alaska, declines were greater than eighty-seven percent; however, there is uncertainty in estimates from Alaska due to limited sampling. A range-wide species distribution analysis showed that the importance of temperature in predicting sunflower sea star distribution rose over fourfold following the SSWD outbreak, suggesting latitudinal variation in outbreak severity may stem from an interaction between disease severity and warm waters. Given the widespread, rapid, and severe declines of sunflower sea stars, the continued mortality from persistent SSWD, and the potential for the disease to intensify in a warming future ocean, there is a need for a Roadmap to Recovery to guide scientists and conservationists as they aid the recovery of this Critically Endangered species . . . The area of greatest concern and need for immediate action common to all geographic regions is understanding disease prevalence and disease risk. Here we use the term “disease” to describe SSWD, also known as Sea Star Wasting Syndrome or Asteroid Idiopathic Wasting Syndrome, which affects some twenty species of sea stars and the cause(s) of which remain unknown and under debate in the literature. Much work is needed to improve our understanding of SSWD, the cause(s) of SSWD, how SSWD impacts wild sunflower sea stars, SSWD dynamics in a multi-host system, and to discover and develop measures to mitigate SSWD impacts and risks associated with conservation actions.”

December 27, 2021: Sunflower Stars now being considered for protection as threatened or endangered under the Endangered Species Act (ESA) in America.
The species is already recognized as Critically Endangered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature but this does not offer them protection in Canada or the US. Deadline for input into the American process is February 25, 2022. Please see this link for details.

Sea Star Wasting Disease (SSWD) – summary of current state of knowledge

Since 2013, more than twenty species of sea star have been impacted by SSWD from Mexico to Alaska. There is local variation in intensity of the disease and which species are impacted. It is one of the largest wildlife die-off events in recorded history. Sea stars contort, have lesions, shed arms and become piles of decay (see below for photos and detail about the progression of the disease).

There is NOT scientific consensus about the cause. Current hypotheses focus on (i) a virus and (ii) low oxygen at the surface of the sea star’s skin maintained due to bacteria. What is consistent in is that changing environmental conditions appear to allow the pathogen (be it bacteria or viruses) to have a greater impact.

The best current source for a summary of the research is Hamilton et al (August, 2021).  From that source: ” . . . outbreak severity may stem from an interaction between disease severity and warmer waters” and “Though we lack a mechanistic understanding of whether temperature or climate change triggered the SSWD outbreak, this study adds to existing evidence that the speed and severity of SSWD are greater in warmer waters”.

As with any pathogen (like the flu virus), the expression of a pathogen as disease is influenced by the number and proximity of individuals i.e. more animals together leads to faster spread of the virus and/or bacteria.

Currently, some species of sea star appear to be recovering while others remain very heavily impacted. Sunflower Stars (Pycnopodia helianthoides) have been devastated and were added to the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) list as Critically Endangered on December 10th, 2020. There are current efforts in both Canada and the USA to have the species assessed and protected. In Canada an assessment will be delivered to the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada (COSEWIC) with hopes that they receive protection under Canada’s Species at Risk Act. In the United States, feedback is current being requested (to February 25, 2022) and whereby Sunflower Stars may receive protection under the Endangered Species Act. 

See the media release from the Nature Conservancy “Iconic Sea Star Listed Critically Endangered After Study Finds Marine Epidemic Event Nearly Wiped Out Global Populationat this link.

There has been much recent media coverage on how Sunflower Stars are being bred in captivity. While such efforts are of course to be applauded and are part of the research needed to understand / mitigate Sea Star Wasting Syndrome, the inclination of the media to put this forward as the solution is troublesome. If the pathogen causing Sea Star Wasting Syndrome is not known, and the stressors related to climate change continue, releasing these Sunflower Stars into the Ocean would expose them to the same stressors as those who died.

Sunflower Stars are of great ecological importance in maintaining kelp forests. Research published by Burt et al in 2018 quantifies the importance of Sunflower Stars in maintaining kelp forests. Sunflower Stars feed on Green Urchins which graze on kelp. Findings included that the decline of Sunflower Stars  “corresponded to a 311% increase in medium urchins and a 30% decline in kelp densities”.  The loss of kelp forests can impact many other ecologically and commercially important species that relay upon them as habitat and food. Note too that our reliance on kelp forests includes oxygen production and carbon dioxide buffering.

From Hamilton et al (August, 2021):
“The aetiological agent(s) driving SSWD remain unidentified. Current hypotheses focus on (i) a viral-sized aetiological agent (e.g. sea star-associated densovirus) and (ii) low oxygen at the surface of the skin maintained through subsequent bacterial proliferation [7,15]. Additionally, the relationship between temperature and SSWD is unresolved. In laboratory studies, the lesion growth rate increased with increasing temperature, but evidence for warm temperatures triggering SSWD is mixed [1618]. Some studies showed a positive relationship between the timing of the outbreak and temperature [6,18,19], while others found no relationship [8,20] or a negative relationship [21]. Differences in disease detection could explain these variable field observations. SSWD is a fast-paced disease accelerating at the scale of weeks to months, so peak prevalence of infection is difficult to detect from seasonal or annual monitoring programmes [7]. Thus, the relationship between environmental triggers of an outbreak can easily be confounded with pandemic disease dynamics [22] . . . Additionally, whether climate change or warm temperatures triggered the outbreak remains unknown. Harvell et al. [6] showed that warm temperature anomalies explained more than a third of the variance in Pycnopodia outbreak timing in the Salish Sea [6]. Furthermore, Aalto et al. [19] modelled the initial outbreak spread dynamics and suggested that warm temperatures can trigger disease and increase mortality [19]. Conversely, several studies found that warmer ocean temperatures were not associated with SSWD outbreak timing in Pisaster ochraceus in Oregon and California [8,21]. Though we lack a mechanistic understanding of whether temperature or climate change triggered the SSWD outbreak, this study adds to existing evidence that the speed and severity of SSWD are greater in warmer waters.”

Research on Sea Star Wasting Syndrome in reverse chronological order. 

Best current summary of research is the December 29, 2021 assessment report for the International Union for the Conservation of Nature = Gravem, S.A., W.N. Heady, V.R. Saccomanno, K.F. Alvstad, A.L.M. Gehman, T.N. Frierson and S.L. Hamilton. 2021. Pycnopodia helianthoides. IUCN Red List of Threatened Species 2021.

January 1, 2022 (first published in October 8, 2021) Burton, A. R., Gravem, S. A., & Barreto, F. S. (January 01, 2022). Little evidence for genetic variation associated with susceptibility to sea star wasting syndrome in the keystone species Pisaster ochraceus. Molecular Ecology, 31, 1, 197-205.

August 2021: Hamilton S. L., Saccomanno V. R., Heady W. N., Gehman A. L., Lonhart S. I., Beas-Luna R., Francis F. T., Lee L., Rogers-Bennett L., Salomon A. K. and Gravem S. A. (2021) Disease-driven mass mortality event leads to widespread extirpation and variable recovery potential of a marine predator across the eastern Pacific. Proc. R. Soc. B.288

June 2021: Jackson, E.W., Wilhelm, R.C., Johnson, M.R., Lutz, H., Danforth, I., Gaydos, J., Hart, M., & Hewson, I. (2020). Diversity of Sea Star-Associated Densoviruses and Transcribed Endogenous Viral Elements of Densovirus OriginJournal of Virology, 95.

January 2021: Aquino CA, Besemer RM, DeRito CM, Kocian J, Porter IR, Raimondi PT, Rede JE, Schiebelhut LM, Sparks JP, Wares JP and Hewson I (2021) Evidence That Microorganisms at the Animal-Water Interface Drive Sea Star Wasting Disease. Front. Microbiol. 11:610009. doi: 10.3389/fmicb.2020.610009. See Cornell University coverage of this research “Organic matter, bacteria doom sea stars to oxygen depletion”. Also, see further communication from one of the lead researchers, Dr. Ian Hewson, at this link. 

November 2020: Hewson, I.; Aquino, C.A.; DeRito, C.M. Virome Variation during Sea Star Wasting Disease Progression in Pisaster ochraceus (Asteroidea, Echinodermata). Viruses 2020, 12, 1332.

Harvell, C. D., Montecino-Latorre, D., Caldwell, J. M., Burt, J. M., Bosley, K., Keller, A., Heron, S. F., … Gaydos, J. K. (January 01, 2019). Disease epidemic and a marine heat wave are associated with the continental-scale collapse of a pivotal predator (Pycnopodia helianthoides)Science Advances, 5, 1.)

Burt JM, Tinker MT, Okamoto DK, Demes KW, Holmes K, Salomon AK (2018) Sudden collapse of a mesopredator reveals its complementary role in mediating rocky reef regime shifts. Proceedings of the Royal Society B 285(1883): 20180553.

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

Schiebelhut, Lauren (2018), Supporting Files for Schiebelhut LM, Puritz JB & Dawson MN (2018) Decimation by sea star wasting disease and rapid genetic change in a keystone species, Pisaster ochraceus PNAS, UC Merced Dash, Dataset.

Cornell Chronicle, Scientists unravel complex factors of starfish diseases.

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.

Why share this information? It is often marine species that testify to environmental problems first, serving as indicators for the resources upon which we too depend. The hypothesis remains that the sea stars have succumbed in an unprecedented way because of changed ocean conditions (stressors). Too few of us realize the importance of sea stars in the ocean food web (see video below) let alone the importance of what they might be indicated about environmental health.

Quote from Drew Harvell, 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.”

Below, January 30, 2019 video by the Hakai Institute re. Sunflower Stars and Sea Star Wasting Disease.

Further detail on recent research

Research published on January 6th, 2021 (Aquino et al) suggests that the pathogen is not a virus but a bacteria but, again, there is not scientific consensus about this. The research puts forward that warmer oceans and increased organic matter appear to lead to increases in specific bacteria (copiotrophs) that then use up the oxygen at the interface of the sea star and the bacteria, and the sea stars can’t breathe. The hypothesis includes that “more heavily affected species were rougher and therefore had a much larger boundary layer (the layer at the animal-water interface) than those species which were less affected.”

October 21, 2019 – Research by Rogers-Bennet and Catton published in Scientific Reports on Bull Kelp deforestation off the coast of Northern California  – Marine heat wave and multiple stressors tip bull kelp forest to sea urchin barrens. Abstract: “Extreme climatic events have recently impacted marine ecosystems around the world, including foundation species such as corals and kelps. Here, we describe the rapid climate-driven catastrophic shift in 2014 from a previously robust kelp forest to unproductive large scale urchin barrens in northern California. Bull kelp canopy was reduced by >90% along more than 350 km of coastline. Twenty years of kelp ecosystem surveys reveal the timing and magnitude of events, including mass mortalities of sea stars (2013-), intense ocean warming (2014–2017), and sea urchin barrens (2015-). Multiple stressors led to the unprecedented and long-lasting decline of the kelp forest. Kelp deforestation triggered mass (80%) abalone mortality (2017) resulting in the closure in 2018 of the recreational abalone fishery worth an estimated $44 M and the collapse of the north coast commercial red sea urchin fishery (2015-) worth $3 M. Key questions remain such as the relative roles of ocean warming and sea star disease in the massive purple sea urchin population increase. Science and policy will need to partner to better understand drivers, build climate-resilient fisheries and kelp forest recovery strategies in order to restore essential kelp forest ecosystem services.”

January 30, 2019 – Paper published in Science Advances by Harvell et alDisease epidemic and a marine heat wave are associated with the continental-scale collapse of a pivotal predator (Pycnopodia helianthoides). Quote from lead author: “The main takeaway is the speed with which a multi-host infectious disease can cause decline in the most susceptible host [Sunflower Stars] and that warming temperatures can field bigger impacts of disease outbreaks.” Abstract includes: “Since 2013, a sea star wasting disease has affected >20 sea star species from Mexico to Alaska. The common, predatory sunflower star (Pycnopodia helianthoides), shown to be highly susceptible to sea star wasting disease, has been extirpated across most of its range. Diver surveys conducted in shallow nearshore waters (n = 10,956; 2006–2017) from California to Alaska and deep offshore (55 to 1280 m) trawl surveys from California to Washington (n = 8968; 2004–2016) reveal 80 to 100% declines across a ~3000-km range. Furthermore, timing of peak declines in nearshore waters coincided with anomalously warm sea surface temperatures. The rapid, widespread decline of this pivotal subtidal predator threatens its persistence and may have large ecosystem-level consequences.”

The paper’s discussion includes: “Cascading effects of the P. helianthoides loss are expected across its range and will likely change the shallow water seascape in some locations and threaten biodiversity through the indirect loss of kelp. P. helianthoides was the highest biomass subtidal asteroid across most of its range before the Northeast Pacific SSWD event. Loss or absence of this major predator has already been associated with elevated densities of green (Strongylocentrotus droebachiensis), red (Mesocentrotus franciscanus), and purple urchins (Strongylocentrotus purpuratus) across their range, even in regions with multiple urchin predators. Associated kelp reductions have been reported following the outbreak . . . SSWD, the anomalously warm water, P. helianthoides declines, and subsequent urchin explosions . . . have been described as the “perfect storm.” This “storm” could result not only in trophic cascades and reduced kelp beds but also in abalone and urchin starvation.”

July 2018 – Research published by 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 news coverage on the research at this link.

March 7, 2018 – 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.

This 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 . . .”

Green Urchins grazing on Split Kelp. ©Jackie Hildering.

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.

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

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


The content below is from my 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;

Rotting pile of sunflower stars. Photo and descriptor – Neil McDaniel;

What I have strived to do 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 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  (e.g. climate change) or even that pathogens enter the environment (e.g. sewage).

Species impacted? 

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

Symptoms and progression of SSWD:

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;

Click to enlarge. Photo and descriptor – Neil McDaniel;

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;

Click to enlarge. Photo and descriptor – Neil McDaniel;

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;

Photo and descriptor – Neil McDaniel;

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;

Photo and descriptor – Neil McDaniel;

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;

Photo and descriptor – Neil McDaniel;

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;

Photo and descriptor – Neil McDaniel;

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

Photo and descriptor - Neil McDaniel;

Photo and descriptor – Neil McDaniel;

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

To date, 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. As with any pathogen (like the flu virus), the expression of a pathogen as disease is influenced by the number and proximity of individuals and could be exacerbated by environmental stressors.

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.”

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).


  1. Email communication with Neil McDaniel.
  2. Email communication with Andy Lamb.
  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.
  14. Sea star wasting syndrome, Nov 30-13 
  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
  16. Video showing impacts in Elliott Bay, 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; Click to enlarge.

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

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

Mottled star with sea star wasting syndrome. Photo and descriptor – Neil McDaniel;
Click to enlarge.

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

Mottled star with sea star wasting syndrome. Photo and descriptor – Neil McDaniel;
Click to enlarge.

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

Mottled star with sea star wasting syndrome. Photo and descriptor – Neil McDaniel;
Click to enlarge.

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

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

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

Giant pink star with sea star wasting syndrome. Photo and descriptor – Neil McDaniel;
Click to enlarge.

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

What was once a giant pink star. Photo and descriptor – Neil McDaniel;
Click to enlarge.

Knowing Right From Wrong – North Pacific Right Whale

Current known tally of number of North Pacific Right Whales in British Columbian waters = four in the last 71 years (2022 to 1951). May be five but one could not be identified whereby it could not be ruled out that s/he was one of the whales previously documented.

NPRW and Gordon Pike

North Pacific Right Whale at the Coal Harbour whaling station in 1951. This was the last Right Whale seen in BC waters until June 2013. From 2013 to 2021, there have only been 4 confirmed sightings off the coat of BC. Photo: Gordon Pike, the DFO biologist responsible for monitoring whaling at Coal Harbour. Credit: Pacific Biological Station, DFO.

Update June 15th, 2021
Right Whale sighting off the west coast of Haida Gwaii by DFO Team Jared Towers and James Pilkington. 
Screen Shot 2021-06-15 at 16.45.41

Update spring 2020 – another seen from the air. No ID photos. 

Update June 19th, 2018
Right Whale sighting off the west coast of Haida Gwaii on June 4th. News items provided below.
It’s only the 3rd North Pacific Right Whale documented off the coast of British Columbia in 67 years. 

Update October 25th, 2013
2nd right whale sighting in BC waters (different whale that than the one seen in June). See news item below. 

Original blog from June 2013:
On June 9th 2013, while surveying off the west coast of Haida Gwaii for DFO’s Cetacean Research Program, biologist James Pilkington sighted one of the world’s most critically endangered mammals – a North Pacific Right Whale (Eubalaena japonica).

The species was once common but endured a catastrophic assault by whaling whereby there are now only about 30 left in the whole eastern North Pacific.

Reflecting on this whaling history makes clear how much positive change there has been in our attitudes to whales and this may have particular potency for those of us on Northern Vancouver Island due to BC’s last whaling station having operated in Coal Harbour from 1948 to 1967.

But, the devastation started far before that.

In 1835, intensive whaling began in the North Pacific and the most desirable target was the RIGHT whale. It was the right whale to kill since they were easy pickings with high reward.

Right Whales feed by using their huge baleen plates (up to 3 m long) to skim zooplankton into their mouths, slowly powering themselves forward with massive tails. When feeding on the surface in this manner, they made life very easy for whalers – being slow moving, often near the coast and easy to approach. The long, fine baleen had very high commercial value as “whale bone”, largely used to stiffen women’s clothing.

Also making them a preferred species for whalers is that Right Whales are particularly stout, weighing as much 90,000 kg at about 17 m.  They have very thick blubber which provided whalers with vast amounts of oil, desirable for lighting in that era. The large blubber layer also meant that right whales floated when killed, making them easier to harvest than other whale species.

Annotated diagram of a North Pacific right whale. Image by Uko Gorter Natural History Illustrations. Annotations ©Jackie Hildering; The Marine Detective.

Annotated diagram of a North Pacific Right Whale. Image by Uko Gorter Natural History Illustrations.

Being easy to kill and having high commercial value, meant the Right Whales of the world were done a great deal of wrong. For the North Pacific Right Whale alone, the estimate is that 11,000 were killed between 1835 and 1849 and that the species was determined to be “commercially extinct” by 1900.

Protection was very late for animals so very endangered. The first International Whaling Convention only came into effect in 1935 and was not ratified by Japan and Russia. An additional Convention came into effect in 1949 strengthening protection, but there was still illegal Soviet whaling in the North Pacific from 1961 to 1979.

In British Columbian waters, despite the knowledge that they were the rarest of the rare, BC whalers killed the only 6 confirmed North Pacific Right Whales sighted in the last century. Five of these were killed before 1933 and 1 was killed in 1951.

What might make this hit literally close to home is that the 1951 whale, a 12.5 m mature male was killed by Coal Harbour whalers (see photograph, 1951 North Pacific right whale with Gordon Pike, the DFO biologist responsible for monitoring whaling at Coal Harbour).

It was said to be an accident; that they did not know it was a North Pacific Right Whale but got the directive to kill him anyway.

What a difference 62 years makes.

North Pacific right whale at the Coal Harbour whaling station in 1951. Photo credit: Pacific Biological Station, DFO.

North Pacific Right Whale at the Coal Harbour whaling station in 1951. Photo credit: Pacific Biological Station, DFO.

The last thing on the minds of those observing the North Pacific Right Whale in June 2013 was killing it. From the moment James Pilkington noted the distinct v-shaped blow, hope soared that the “holy grail of whales” had been found and that the opportunity to study it might aid conservation.

DFO’s cetacean researchers, Dr. John Ford and Graeme Ellis joined James and shot the whale with cameras not harpoons, allowing the whale (a sub-adult) to be identified as an individual from the raised patches of skin called callosities that are unique to every right whale. They managed to get DNA and scat samples. DNA confirmed the whale was a young female and had not been previously documented. She has been assigned the ID MML90 (See Ford et al).

And when the sighting was relayed to the media, the societal change became so very clear. What was once the right whale to kill, is now the right whale to provide us with hope about the resilience of nature.

However, I believe that to truly know the significance of this sighting, it may take another 62 years.

Will society then be able to look back with the same sense of positive change, having learned that there are still many ways to kill a whale and impact the ecosystems for which they are ambassadors?

Will we have significantly reduced our fossil fuel addiction that drives climate change, impacting the whales’ food supply? Will we have realized that our individual demand for energy literally fuels the threat of tanker traffic, and therefore oil spills, on our Coast?  Will we have curbed our consumer lifestyles of disposable goods that lead to a literal sea of plastic?

With such changes, the potential increases for the recovery of North Pacific Right Whales and the health of the marine ecosystem on which we too depend. This will be our ultimate reward for better knowing right, from wrong. 

North Pacific Right Whale catches from 1785 to 1913 in the eastern North Pacific from the records of American whale ships. Photo by Environment and Climate Change Canada’s species at risk registry (via National Observer article at this link).

See video of the June 2013 sighting of the first North Pacific Right Whale in 62 years by clicking here, narration by Dr. John Ford.


Coverage of the June 2018 sighting:

Scientific paper on the two 2013 sightings. Includes that the 2nd sighting in 2013 was of a previously undocumented whale (now assigned ID MML92) and that the whale had severe scarring, likely from entanglement. DNA was not collected so gender of this whale is not known.
Ford, J.K.B., Pilkington, J.F., Gisborne, B. et al. Recent observations of critically endangered North Pacific right whales (Eubalaena japonica) off the west coast of Canada. Mar Biodivers Rec (2016) 9: 50.

Retrospective on the 2013 sighting off Haida Gwaii; Haida Gwaii Observer; July 22, 2016; “Scientists recall the whale tale of a lifetime

2nd right whale sighting in BC waters in 2013, was on October 25, 2013. See – Vancouver Sun; October 31, 2013; “Second sighting of endangered North Pacific right whale in B.C. waters in 62 years – Researchers ‘astonished’ after whale spotted off the entrance to Juan de Fuca Strait near Victoria”


BC Cetacean Sightings Network – Right Whale

BC Cetacean Sightings Network – Whaling

Feldhamer, George A.; Thompson, Bruce C.; Chapman, Joseph A. (2003). Wild mammals of North America : biology, management, and conservation (2nd ed. ed.). Baltimore, Md.: Johns Hopkins University Press. p. 432. ISBN 9780801874161.

Fisheries and Oceans Canada. 2017. Action Plan for Blue, Fin, Sei and North Pacific Right Whales (Balaenoptera musculus, B. physalus, B. borealis, and Eubalaena japonica) in Canadian Pacific Waters. Species at Risk Act Action Plan Series. Fisheries and Oceans Canada, Ottawa. iv + 28 pp.

Fisheries and Oceans Canada. 2011. Recovery Strategy for the North Pacific Right Whale (Eubalaena japonica) in Pacific Canadian Waters [Proposed]. Species at Risk Act Recovery Strategy Series. Fisheries and Oceans Canada, Ottawa. vii + 51 pp.

Globe and Mail; June 20, 2013; ‘Miracle’ whale leaves scientists elated – and relieved

Nichol, L.M., E.J. Gregr, R. Flinn, J.K.B. Ford, R. Gurney, L. Michaluk, and A. Peacock. 2002. British Columbia Commercial Whaling Catch Data 1908 to 1967: A detailed Description of the B.C. Historical Whaling Database. Can. Tech. Rep. Fish Aquat. Sci. 2371: vi + 77 p.

North Pacific Right Whale Research in Alaska – NOAA

Pilkington, James; July 2, 2013; AquaBlog – “The Right Place, Right Time, Right Whale: Update #1”

Scarff, J.E. 1986. Historic and present distribution and abundance of the right whale (Eubalaena glacialis) in the eastern North Pacific south of 50N and east of 180W. Rep. int. Whal. Commn (Special issue 10):43-63.

Welcome to Coal Harbour, Canada –  webpage

Uko Gorter Natural History Illustrations (with great thanks Uko)

Submerge . . .

Come away with me . . . spend 3 minutes submerged in the shallows of the eastern North Pacific, photographing jelly species.

There is no place I’d rather be than here, learning about the richness and wonder of life in these cold waters.

With huge gratitude to Roger McDonell – underwater videographer and dive buddy supreme – for having taken this video.




Video taken during our weekly dive as the Top Island Econauts Dive Club.

Rockfish Barotrauma

Update: September 2022
New paper – Hailey L. Davies, Shane Gross, Dana R. Haggarty, Francis Juanes (August, 2022)- PHOTO DIARY – Conserving Rockfishes: Barotrauma and Descending Devices in the Northeast Pacific, Fisheries Magazine.

Get the app that alerts you when you enter a Rockfish Conservation Area.

Update: Fisheries Notice March  25, 2019
The use of a descending device is now required by condition of licence to assist in the conservation and survivability of rockfish being returned to the water. Because of their closed swim bladders, rockfish brought to the surface suffer barotrauma, causing the swim bladder to inflate and reducing the probability of their survival upon release. Handle catch as little as possible, using wet hands to preserve the protective slime coat, and return to the water at depth of capture as quickly as possible (under two minutes). To avoid catching rockfish, move to another fishing location.”


This photo is of a Yelloweye Rockfish that has died from barotrauma, also known as “pressure shock”. 

Yelloweye Rockfish that has died of barotrauma. Reduced water pressure causes the air in the swim bladder to expand and push out the esophagus and eyes. BUT this is a reversible condition whereby the fish can survive through use of a “fish descender”. Photo: Hildering. 

Many rockfish species are particularly sensitive to reductions in pressure since the air in their swim bladders expands substantially. The swim bladder is a buoyancy control organ and even when slowly reeled in from a depth of only 20 m (60’), a rockfish’s swim bladder can expand to three times its size, putting pressure on the fish’s organs.

As is the case with the Yelloweye Rockfish in the photo, the swim bladder can expand to the point of causing the fish’s eyes to bulge out of their sockets and its esophagus to be pushed out of its mouth (the esophagus is the first section of the digestive tract). I know this is likely a sight that may not enhance your appetite for your rockfish catch but please read on since, contrary to the thinking of many, this IS reversible whereby the rockfish stands a good chance of survival.

Colossal “management” errors were made with overfishing slow-growing rockfish. Many species are extremely long-lived, slow to sexually mature, and the big, old females are the most fertile – producing the most eggs and hatching the largest number of healthy young.

For example, Yelloweye Rockfish are believed to have a lifespan of up to 118 years. They don’t reproduce until they are at least 12 years old, and the old females can incubate up to 2.7 million eggs! Know that there are 38 species of rockfish off the coast of British Columbia. 

This means that species are very slow to reproduce whereby, if you catch lots, especially the big females, you can devastate populations very quickly.

Another nail in the coffin of rockfish is that many adults also have high site fidelity so that by fishing one area, you can wipe out a community of fish. Click here for my blog on having found back the SAME individual rockfish in the SAME spot after EIGHT YEARS. This is why Rockfish Conservation Areas (RCAs) are essential, where it is most often illegal to do any hook and line fishing (see restrictions here). 

But, what is you accidentally catch a rockfish outside these areas?

There are studies that support that if you were to quickly recompress the fish, it would stand a very good chance of survival, even where it appears dead at the surface. The fish could be brought back to depth with barbless weighted hooks, or commercial “fish descenders”.

This video make the life-saving potential of fish descenders very clear.

From Island Fisherman Magazine: “Common types of descending devices include a simple, inverted barbless hook, a spring-loaded clamp, and a pressure-release clamp. Of the different devices available, the most effective and simplest to use is a depth pressure activated release device, the Seaqualizer . . . Automatically opening at preset depth, the motion of the boat or the actions of the rockfish as it descends will not prematurely release the fish.

Examples of fish descenders:
Seaqualizer Fish Release Tool (~ $60 CAN)
(Recommended by various fishing organizations and publications)
Shelton Fish Descender (~$8 CAN) 
SeaQualizer SeaYaLater Fish-Release Hook (~$20 CAN)”

If you can act quickly enough (which is essential) you can even use and inverted, weighted milk crate. See clip below AND this link for making your own descending device.

How wonderful it would be if more people would undertake the effort to recompress the fish, knowing how dire the situation is for many rockfish species. Imagine the further positive impact if people would choose to return the depleted species to depth even when they haven’t reached their catch limit, especially the big, highly productive females.

But, even if there was to be such enlightenment, many rockfish populations are so depleted that they need far more protection.

Again, Rockfish Conservation Areas (RCAs) are essential. These should be areas known to be the territory of depleted rockfish populations. Since these are no-fishing zones, there is no chance of barotrauma and the rockfish populations that live in the area are given the time to rebuild to have more sexually mature fish and more big old super mamas.

In summary, it’s so easy to contribute to rockfish conservation:
(1) Respect Rockfish Conservation Areas knowing that you usually cannot do ANY hook and line fishing there; and
(2) Invest in a fish descender for rockfish caught outside RCAs.

Long live rockfish!

Fantastic video showing how rockfish that appear dead at the surface due to barotrauma fully can revive at depth! From the Coastside Fishing Club:

Video from Alaska Department of Fish and Wildlife showing a summary of homemade and commercial fish descenders. 

Entertaining and super informative video “How to save a life – a rockfish life” by fish guru Milton Love with a rap song by Ray Troll:

Source: Protecting Rockfish – Fisheries and Oceans Canada

Get the app that alerts you when you enter a Rockfish Conservation Area

Government of Canada

Examples of fish descenders

Research on the effectiveness of fish descenders