Rooting for sea stars

I’m not a northwest native – just a transplant. But I love Washington’s beaches, most especially the beach along Birch Bay in the top left corner of the country, just a few miles from the Canadian border. When my family discovered this faded beach town about 15 years ago on an accidental vacation, we immediately felt we belonged on this protected bay, where the tide is gentle and the water is swimmable, warming up on the wide, shallow beach as the tide comes in. One-striped beach rocks. Squirting clam holes. And all kinds of wonderful life to discover in the tide pools – including piles of purple and pink sea stars clinging to the bottom of the big rocks or stranded across a pristine beach at low tide. Even as the kids became adolescents, they shed their sophisticated ways and reverted to kid-dom on this beach. Some of our most memorable family time has been here.

So it’s been stunning to learn about sea star wasting syndrome, which has hit Pacific Northwest beaches, causing mass die-offs of local populations since last year. It’s characterized by a deflated appearance and lesions, quickly progressing to limb loss and death. It’s causes are not well understood – it’s been associated with El Niño’s warmer-than-normal water temperature, but we’ve had cooler surface water temperatures in the Northwest in the last 15 years.

This isn’t the first occurrence – there were sea star die-offs along the west coast in the 80’s and 90’s, and populations take many years to rebound. When a region is affected about 95% of the population will die. This interactive map monitors the outbreak in the west (the east coast has been affected too).

Biologists like Benjamin Miner at Bellingham’s Western Washington U have enlisted local divers to help collect healthy and infected sea stars to aid the search for causes. I’m no diver but I wish there was something I could do to support the push to understand it. There’s some emerging consensus that it’s caused by a pathogen – a bacteria or virus. But too little is known about it to begin to understand whether it’s a natural cycle, man-made, or some combination of both; until we do we won’t know if it’s preventable.

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