Photo: November 21, 2021 in Kwakwaka’wakw Territory near Port Hardy
© Jackie Hildering, reproduced with permission
By Jackie Hildering
I have the privilege of sharing with you as “The Marine Detective”, the handle under which I work to raise awareness about life in the cold, dark northeast Pacific Ocean and to illuminate the fragility, beauty, and mystery there.
I hope the name suggests the correct humility. I am living and learning in Kwakwaka’wakw Territory, northeast Vancouver Island, British Columbia as a biology teacher, cold-water diver, underwater photographer, and Humpback Whale researcher with the Marine Education and Research Society. In one small piece of the planet, I have the privilege of learning from individual whales to individual sea stars.
Recently, we found two Sunflower Stars at a site I have been monitoring since the onset of Sea Star Wasting Disease in 2013. Notice the juvenile Sunflower Star here to the right of the diver, beside the mating Yellow-Rimmed Nudibranchs. This Sunflower Star was in just 5 metres of water.
Seeing Sunflower Stars is such a rarity now. These two individuals were the first I documented in twelve hours underwater over the last three months and believe me, I have been looking.
Will these two survive? I have seen waves of juveniles before and then they disappear. Their plight appears to be linked to climate change.
With action . . . yes, there is shining hope.
Without action . . . no.
I have been struggling too, looking for escape or reprieve from global realities as “atmospheric rivers” fall on parts of our province. It is so tempting to want to hide, especially if we see the problems we are facing as disparate. They are not.
I have to remind myself of the common solutions so I can see a way forward that is not guided by the faintness of blind hope, not paralyzed by fear and overwhelmed and/or obfuscated by the din of values and voices that serve only the few for a brief time. These common solutions include:
- to know, live and share the gains that come from using less (less fossil fuels, dangerous chemicals, and disposables; less consumerism generally);
- to exercise true precaution over worshipping human ingenuity;
- to speak for truth and science and to have compassion for those who cannot;
- to exercise our power as voters and consumers to serve future generations; and
- to care and act on the knowledge of connection to others across time, cultures, distance, and species.
In short, it’s a really good time to be a good human.
I had to dig for these words for myself. May they serve you too.
Jackie Hildering’s work as the Marine Detective can be found on Facebook and Instagram @TheMarineDetective and on her website www.TheMarineDetective.com
Sea Star Wasting Disease (SSWD)
Since 2013, more than 20 species of sea star from Mexico to Alaska have been impacted by SSWD. There is local variation in intensity of the disease and which species are impacted. It is one of the largest wildlife die-off events in recorded history. Sea stars contort, have lesions, shed arms, and become piles of decay.
Currently, some species of sea star appear to be recovering while others remain very heavily impacted. Sunflower Stars (Pycnopodia helianthoides) have been devastated and were added to the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) list as Critically Endangered. There are current efforts to have Sunflower Stars assessed by the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada (COSEWIC) with hopes that they receive protection under Canada’s Species at Risk Act.
There is no scientific consensus about the cause yet. Current hypotheses focus on (i) a virus and (ii) low oxygen maintained at the surface of the sea star’s skin due to bacteria. However, it appears that changing environmental conditions allow the pathogen (be it bacteria or viruses) to have a greater impact.
Hamilton et al (August, 2021) offer the best current summary of the research to date on SSWD. They note that “Though we lack a mechanistic understanding of whether temperature or climate change triggered the SSWD outbreak, this study adds to existing evidence that the speed and severity of SSWD are greater in warmer waters” (p. 8).
It seems what may be happening off the coast of British Columbia is that there are refuges of Sunflower Stars at depth where it is colder. They spawn at depth, then some juveniles settle in the shallows where they may succumb to the pathogen if stressed by warmer water.
For my summary of the research and where to report sightings, please visit https://themarinedetective.com/2013/11/10/wasted-what-is-happening-to-the-sea-stars-of-the-ne-pacific
Hamilton, S. L. (2021). Disease-driven mass mortality event leads to widespread extirpation and variable recovery potential of a marine predator across the eastern Pacific. Proceedings of the Royal Society B. 288: 20211195. https://doi.org/10.1098/rspb.2021.1195