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 and is only known to live near Telegraph Cove (Weynton Pass) and Quadra Island (Discovery Passage). ©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 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 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.

Remarkable Giant Pacific Octopus + 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 Decorated 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?

This blog is catalyzed by several recent advertisements for whale watching that I consider 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 mis-educates people. There are Be Whale Wise guidelines for respectful and safe marine mammal viewing which include distance limits. 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. There will be those who succumb to such pressure, and who will conduct their vessel in a way that violates the guidelines 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” the guidelines, 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 Habour 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. There are areas on our Coast where whale watching operators have agreed not to show their boats in close proximity to whales in order to solve this dilemma and counteract the above two points as well.

    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 baby.  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

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 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. Bend now has a calf of her own. A30 matriline of “Northern Resident” orca population (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. But, we’ve not come far enough there yet. The only legal teeth to protect marine mammals is Section 7 of the federal Marine Mammal Regulations which “prohibits the disturbance of marine mammals by any person” without defining “disturbance”. Thankfully, there are some precedent setting legal cases now and charges under the Species at Risk Act have also been successful. However, we’re a long way away from ensuring repeat, flagrant offenders of the Be Whale Wise guidelines face justice.

There in fact appears to be a general absence of political will to protect marine mammals and the marine environment. A solid example of this is that the updated and comprehensive Amendments to the Marine Mammal Regulations have been drafted since 2004 but have never cleared the government process that would allow them to become law. They have in fact now been archived in the gazetting process.

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

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

So, here we go, my points for consideration in making a whale watching choice that is a 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?
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. Splash on the left is her calf just having entered the water, learning to hunt alongside her. Splashes in the background, right in front of Telegraph Cove, are the dolphins that got away. ©Jackie Hildering; telephoto and cropped image.

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.

4. Ethics and Approach:

Does the company:

  • Contribute to marine conservation and research efforts e.g. sightings data being relayed to research initiatives, financial or in-kind support, etc.
  • Have a holistic and comprehensive approach to environmental sustainability e.g. reduction of waste, use of organic, energy-efficient, and biodegradable products, etc?
  • Use language and images that are respectful of the marine wildlife and the guidelines for viewing them?

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.

Pacific Harbour Seal about to give birth. ©Jackie Hildering

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

When done right, ensuring guidelines 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.

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 Habour Seal resting at the surface. ©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.]


References:

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?

Green Urchins grazing on Split Kelp. ©2016 Jackie Hildering.

Last update: December 2017
Sea Star Wasting Disease summary: 

  • 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 has been found in the 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.
  • It 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 an be more of their prey like mussels and clams. But, with less sea 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 to the pathogen 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.

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

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 ] 

___________________________________________

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.

Knowing Right From Wrong – North Pacific Right Whale

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. With Gordon Pike, the DFO biologist responsible for monitoring whaling at Coal Harbour. Photo credit: Pacific Biological Station, DFO.

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

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. Click to enlarge. Image by Uko Gorter Natural History Illustrations.

Annotated diagram of a North Pacific Right Whale. Click to enlarge. 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 but – 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.

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. 

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.

Update: 2nd right whale sighting in BC waters 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”

 

Sources:

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. 2013. Partial Action Plan for Blue, Fin, Sei and North Pacific Right Whales (Balaenoptera musculus, B. physalus, B. borealis, and Eubalaena japonica) in Pacific Canadian Waters. Species at Risk Act Action Plan Series. Fisheries and Oceans Canada, Ottawa. iv + 23 pp.

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.

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

Here’s another case of a photo being worth a thousand words.

It is of a Yelloweye Rockfish that has died from barotrauma aka “pressure shock”. 

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 stomach to be pushed out of its mouth. 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.

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

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, don’t reproduce until they are at least 12 years old, and the old females can incubate up to 2.7 million eggs!

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. This is why Rockfish Conservation Areas (RCAs) are essential, where it is illegal most often to do any hook and line fishing (see restrictions here). 

But, what is you accidentally catch a rockfish outside these areas and do not wish to retain it, or you have already caught your fishing limit? 

There are studies that prove 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 (see video below). The fish could be brought back to depth with barbless weighted hooks, commercial “fish descenders” (cost is only about $6), or even by inverting a weighted milk crate over the fish! 

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

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 make a positive change: (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!

Links:

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

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: