Monday, January 12, 2015

Are the Stars Out Tonight?

While wandering a deserted beach at dawn, stagnant in my work, I saw a man in the distance bending and throwing as he walked the endless stretch toward me. As he came near, I could see that he was throwing starfish, abandoned on the sand by the tide, back into the sea. When he was close enough I asked him why he was working so hard at this strange task. He said that the sun would dry the starfish and they would die. I said to him that I thought he was foolish. There were thousands of starfish on miles and miles of beach. One man alone could never make a difference. He smiled as he picked up the next starfish. Hurling it far into the sea he said, "It makes a difference for this one." I abandoned my writing and spent the morning throwing starfish.”  ~ Loren Eiseley
 One thing I have learned: On this road called "life" you never know for sure where the twists and turns will take you, so it's best to just enjoy the journey...
Our first visit was in the cold dark of a February night. I felt the old familiar uneasiness of an unknown place and situation, but my two cohorts assured me that we had permission to be there, so I swallowed my caution and followed them down the stairs, across the wet sandy mud, and under the private dock.

 It did not take us long to survey the situation, choose our area of study, measure and record its dimensions, and then set to work on the sea stars.

 You might know them as starfish - the current scientific term is sea stars - and here on the American west coast, they are in serious trouble; from Alaska through California, they are dying by the millions. Although this phenomenon has been reported before, never has it been seen with this severity and magnitude.

Because the three of us are part of a volunteer beach naturalists' group and frequently work on our local beaches, we jumped at the chance to take some training and commit to collecting data to help researchers find the cause of this terrible affliction known as Sea Star Wasting Syndrome.
(For information on this syndrome click HERE)

  ochre/purple sea star

Because of the excellent information provided to us and an "on-top-of-it" line of communication to assist us, the actual data collection has not been difficult.
mottled sea star
Basically, we need to identify and target two specific species of sea stars (ochre/purple star Pisaster ochraceus and mottled star Evasterias troschelii) in a given area, measure the widest distance across each of them, decide whether or not they appear healthy - if they do not, we assign each a number according to how advanced the disease is on them, record all of this and photograph them.
Although I am a true naturalist at heart, with some training, I have to say that I have never been involved in actual scientific data collection of this nature. So why start now?
 Meegan M. Reid for the Kitsap Sun
We are three mostly retired ladies of a "certain age" who happen to love the out-of-doors, all creatures, and enjoy a good challenge. We have varying degrees of education, vast and diverse life experiences, are fiercely devoted to our families and friends, and have an insatiable desire to learn about, contribute to, and improve the world around us. So why not?
 What amazed me was how quickly the three of us fell into roles that seemed to fit our skills and personalities to a T!
 Linda is undoubtedly the scientist among us - quiet and reserved, she has the ability to size up a situation quickly, an eye for detail, and a determined stubbornness when it comes to preserving the environment and all creatures within it.
She easily gravitated toward taking the measurements and identifying the most minute evidence of disease.

Peg is a chatterbox - a warm, caring person with a heart as big as all outdoors and a fierce enthusiasm to throw herself whole-heartedly into any endeavor she is a part of. She became our recorder - rapidly filling in the blanks on the form as Linda called out the measurements and other details.
Innately honest, she is humorously quick to say "Wait, WAIT - I got that wrong. Let me correct it..."
or "Aaaaw, look at all the babies! I LOVE all these babies...!"
Meegan M. Reid for the Kitsap Sun
It's difficult to assess oneself, but I'd guess I fall somewhere between the other two personality-wise. A consummate photographer, I naturally fell into that role and have a million shots to prove it! I enjoy "belly biology" and always leave these excursions with at least one muddy knee...
That first night out we were optimistic because we found lots of adult sea stars that appeared fairly healthy and a great many juveniles.
Only a couple puzzled us a bit with their droopy or twisted arms, but as we were to learn, this was only a hint of the devastation to come...
We soon fell into a routine of visiting this site every two weeks or so. For several summers we had been hosting beach explorations at a state park not far from this private dock, so we began to unofficially monitor it also. We continued with our chosen roles, but found that we could easily switch tasks if we needed to when one of us was unable to come on a particular day.
Meegan M. Reid for the Kitsap Sun
Tides here vary with the seasons: winter low tides tend to be higher and often occur in the wee hours; summer low tides tend to be lower and may occur in the middle of the day or afternoon. Changing tides always present a challenge to intertidal sea life with the accompanying stress leaving them more vulnerable to disease. As the seasons progressed and the temperatures warmed, we began to see more and more sick seas stars.
First we would notice the unusual twisting of their arms,
then a gooey white appearance on their bodies,

and finally the total disintegration of their arms and central disks - it was devastating to observe...
In June, we were contacted by an environmental reporter for one of our local newspapers wanting to know if he could accompany us on one of our excursions to do a story on the study. As luck would have it, we all were witness that day to a huge die-off in our local area as dead and dying sea stars littered the site under the dock and at the state park. We had never seen anything like it.
Meegan M. Reid for the Kitsap Sun 
The reporter did a good job with the story and got his facts correct. Thanks to that coverage, we were better able to engage people we knew in conversation about this terrible disease. Although many people enjoy seeing our brightly-colored sea stars during low tides, not many really know much about these sea creatures.
The ochre/purple sea stars are what are known as a keystone species, which means that they have a disproportionately large effect on their environment relative to their abundance. These sea stars play a critical role in maintaining the structure of their ecological community, affecting many other organisms and helping to determine the types and numbers of various other species in the community.
These stars feed off of mussels and clams and we've heard local reports that there has now been an increase in these shellfish, but it remains to be seen what the overall effect might be in the future.
Finally, a researcher in Cornell’s College of Agriculture and Life Sciences has identified the deadly culprit as the Sea Star Associated Densovirus (SSaDV), a type of parvovirus commonly found in invertebrates. The study was published this Fall; according to Ian Hewson, associate professor of microbiology and lead author of the study “There are 10 million viruses in a drop of seawater, so discovering the virus associated with a marine disease can be like looking for a needle in a haystack. Not only is this an important discovery of a virus involved in a mass mortality of marine invertebrates, but this is also the first virus described in a sea star.” Although this discovery provides evidence for a link between a densovirus and sea star wasting syndrome, there is still much work to be done before this mysterious disease is fully understood. 
(For information on this study click HERE)

On another cold, dark night this January, we were again under the dock checking on "our" sea stars. Strange as it may seem to some, we've become somewhat attached to them and had not been to see them since early October. Back then we'd found around seven total, and not all looked well.
 We were pleasantly surprised by this most recent visit, as we counted around fifty or so and quite a few were juveniles. It's too early to be overly optimistic, however, as we still have another warm summer to get through which well may bring a recurrence of the virus. Only time will tell.
On our recent visit to the dock we knew there was supposed to be a spectacular display of the Quadrantid meteor shower. Unfortunately, we learned that the best viewing time was after midnight; the skies were cloudy and the moon nearly full, so meteors were not to be seen - in this part of the world, by us anyway.
It didn't really matter, because we only came to do our small bit to help these incredible creatures survive.
We have no idea where this will all lead - what other factors might influence the course of this disease, what other living things might be affected, how long the study might go on... We are ordinary people doing ordinary things hoping that we can make some difference.
Kitsap Memorial State Park 2012
What we do know is that all life is precious and that everything is connected. Whatever happens to one of us will affect the rest of us - whether we know or acknowledge it or not.
Kitsap Memorial State Park 2014

Cold, stiff, and odd as they may appear, we share a certain deep affection for and appreciation of these sea stars - and of each other.
We came to see if the stars were out, but really we found much more than that...
Look down and you may miss a shooting star in the sky. Look up and you may miss a starfish in the sand. But quick, look straight ahead and tell me what is that big, blurry thing that’s so bright? Oh yeah, that’s my love for you.” ~ Jarod Kintz


  1. Beautifully written!

  2. Thanks for this lovely story of your efforts to understand and report on the sea star wasting syndrome.

  3. wow. what a story to inspire. and to repeat what cheryl already said...beautifully written, as always.
    you are doing such a good thing!! i can definitely see how you could get attached to 'your sea stars'.

    i had never even heard of this wasting disease.
    the Eiseley story at the beginning is a very nice & fitting intro...and Kintz's quote at the end too...i like that a lot.

    continue with your work for these sea stars! it's with people like you 3, who can make a big difference in finding a fix for this!!

    "There are 10 million viruses in a drop of seawater, so discovering the virus associated with a marine disease can be like looking for a needle in a haystack." wow!! i was stunned when i read this.
    thanks for sharing. and much congrats on good luck with this much needed work you're doing!!