Wasting Away

On my walks along the shore on dark January days, one bright spot has always been┬áseeing an orange sea star (or starfish) down on the beach at the water’s edge. They made my day!

Starfish - one is not like the others

And then one day they were gone.

I wondered if it was connected to the warming ocean water, but a fellow walker reassured me, “No, no–it’s just a disease. I have a friend on Hood Canal who knows about them. He says they’ll be back once the disease passes!”

But they have not come back in the four to five years since this “wasting disease” was first identified. And they’ll likely never be back this time, say scientists. Warmer ocean waters make animals more vulnerable to disease. This particular disease has hit some 20 sea star species.

The situation is recognized as being the largest observed die-off of an ocean animal. Not all the species are gone yet, but the disease continues, especially along West Coast bays where the waters have warmed significantly. Local ecologists describe this “wasting disease” as a “horror show,” where the animals literally melt into a goo, falling apart.

I remember my children exploring tide pools when they were barely old enough to walk. Some of the first animals they encountered there were sea stars–bright splashes of orange, dark red, or purple in that magical star shape.

They knew these animals were tidal pool superheroes. They could lose an arm and re-grow a new one! Those gazillion tube feet on their undersides made it possible for them to grab and hold onto anything.

I have shed tears over the lost sea stars–not only for the children who won’t see them, but for myself.

One of my first blog posts I wrote was about the grief I felt over the disappearing glaciers. I had been in a second hand book store when I spotted an older book of large photographs of glaciers and I found myself weeping as I remembered standing on one of those glaciers. I never imagined a day when they would not exist.

Depending on fossil fuels for so much in our lives is coming at a high, high price.

It’s not an honor to be a witness to the “largest observed die-off of an ocean animal.” It’s a profound grief.

Photo credit:photo credit: IronRodArt – Royce Bair (“Star Shooter”) Starfish – one is not like the others via photopin (license)

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More Sea Stories

My favorite sea story involves one of my favorite tidal animals.

Tony and Patty Jean were living on a boat, a trawler, with their two young children (their baby only four months old) when we visited them. They were just finishing their first season of fishing and up to their young ears in debt on the boat.

Patty Jean told us how in getting onto the boat one day she knocked out one of the lenses of her glasses. Before she could grab it, it flipped over the edge of the boat and into the bay.

“We couldn’t afford new glasses,” said Tony, “so the next day I hired a good local diver at $20/hour to go down and look for it.” As the diver descended down into the water, he had to be careful not to touch the bottom because the silt he stirred up would cloud the water. He didn’t find anything directly below the spot where the lens had gone into the water, so he worked his way down to the other end of the boat, picked up a sea star, and there was the clam-shaped lens, firmly attached to its underside. They managed to work the lens loose and save the sea star any more frustration over trying to find the juicy innards.

Sea star Pisaster ochraceus consuming a mussel...

Sea star Pisaster ochraceus consuming a mussel in Central California (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Sometimes when we neighbors are low on local sea stories, we wander to other locations. Sally, who lives a few houses away, told me some years ago that she had heard a news story about fishermen off the coast of India who reported catching a sea monster with a long trunk-like appendage. A specialist at the University of Washington who was interviewed for the story recalled a similar sea monster report off the coast of Ireland some years earlier. It turned out that a ship had been transporting elephants when one of the beasts had died. They gave it what was probably a pretty simple burial at sea. A fisherman had caught the partially decomposed elephant. Although the UW specialist didn’t rule out all kinds of unknown sea creatures, he suggested this might explain the sea monster off the Indian coast.

An 1856 illustration depicting Lophius america...

An 1856 illustration depicting Lophius americanus as a sea monster. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)