Sea stars may be on path to recovery; summer could provide answers

It was a dark and stormy night — but that didn’t deter the Three Starfish Musketeers from going out at low tide on Saturday to check on the condition of sea stars clinging to the Lofall pier.

Researcher Melissa Miner examines sea stars on the Lofall pier while volunteer Peg Tillery watches.Photo by Christopher Dunagan
Researcher Melissa Miner examines sea stars on the Lofall pier while volunteer Peg Tillery watches. // Photo by Christopher Dunagan

If you recall, I introduced these three retired-age ladies in a story last summer, when they first reported a scene of devastation on the North Kitsap pier and nearby beach, where a multitude of sea stars lay sick and dying. Many sea stars were afflicted with a mysterious disease called sea star wasting disease, which had already affected hundreds of locations from Alaska to Mexico.

Check out my story in the Kitsap Sun (subscription) or my blog post in Water Ways.

The three women — Barb Erickson, Linda Martin and Peg Tillery — have been serving as amateur researchers, monitoring the Lofall beach, like hundreds of other volunteers at various locations along the West Coast. When they started monitoring the beach in February 2014, they observed dozens of healthy sea stars — but conditions changed dramatically by June.

Barb tells the story with photographs in her blog, Ladybug’s Lair, and I’ve included a summary of her observations at the bottom of this page.

I was not sure what to expect when I accompanied the three women to the Lofall pier on Saturday, the night before the Seahawks NFC championship game. Joining us on this dark, rainy night were researcher Melissa Miner of the University of California at Santa Cruz, who has been working with volunteers up and down the coast. Also with us was Jeff Adams of Washington Sea Grant, who has been coordinating local efforts.

What we saw Saturday was a great many more young sea stars than last year, along with adults that seemed to be healthy. None of the starfish showed signs of disease.

“That’s good news, and there are some big ones in here,” Melissa commented, as she examined the pilings where the monitoring is taking place.

“It feels better this time when we’re out here,” Jeff said, adding that last fall he saw far more sea stars turning to mush and disintegrating. “All we saw were body parts strewn all over.”

Melissa said researchers are seeing much greater numbers of juveniles at many of the sites along the coast and inner waterways. That could mean that the population is rebounding, but there is still great uncertainty, she said. Some evidence points to temperature as playing a role in the disease.

“It seems like around here temperature is a pretty big factor,” she said. “When summer comes around, we’ll be able to see how things change.”

In November, a group of scientists identified a virus, known as densovirus,
that is clearly associated with diseased sea stars. Further work is needed to determine how the virus affects the animals and what other factors are in play. See Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences and my Nov. 22 blog post in Water Ways.

If we are indeed in a period of recovery at Lofall — and hopefully many other sites — it will be interesting to see how the ecosystem rebounds and how long it takes for the sea star population to return.

Jeff Adams told me in November that he hopes to maintain the volunteer monitoring program for years to come — not just to track the sea star disease but to understand more about the cycles of marine life.

Barb Erickson summarized the findings of the group before Saturday’s outing:

“For our data collection, all of our observations take place in a specific area centered on three concrete piers under a dock at Lofall. In the beginning, a great number of ochre/purple sea stars and a few mottled stars congregated on each of the piers. That number has steadily declined over the past year and, although we are aware that these animals come and go with the tides, we feel their decline is directly related to the disease.

“We began our observations in February 2014, when we counted 56 sea stars, adults and juveniles. Many small juveniles were tucked away in corners and under cables on the piers. Of those 56, only 4 appeared to be in the early stages of disease. In April we counted 100, all of which appeared healthy. In May, of the 53 we found, 33 were in various stages of illness. By June, the majority of the sea stars were dead or dying. Of the 12 living stars we found, 11 were in the early stages of disease.

“Throughout the rest of the summer and early Fall, the area was littered with dead stars and the number of living ones, including juveniles, continued to decrease. By October, we found a total of only 7 living adult stars and no juveniles; 5 were diseased. In January 2015, we found 56 (20 adults and 36 juveniles); all appeared healthy.”

The count from Saturday’s outing was 48 sea stars (21 adults and 27 juveniles), and all appeared healthy.

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