By: Nicole Willared
In the shelter of Trinidad Head, Grant Eberle, a marine technician for Humboldt State held a white bucket and walked the slippery rugged rocks under the pier searching for starfish.
All the starfish from HSU’s marine lab invertebrate touch tank were removed last Wednesday because they have a fatal disease, according to Yvonne Kugies, the office manager at the HSU’s marine laboratory.
“All the starfish were taken out of the touch tank,” Kugies said. “The loss was so significant, they were disintegrating in the tank and Grant had to take measures.”
Eberle, who has been the equipment technician at HSU’s marine laboratory in Trinidad since 1996, said whatever is affecting the starfish is in the water tanks at the marine laboratory.
“I was pulling four or five starfish out of the tank everyday,” Eberle said. “First we noticed it with the ochre stars, then the leather stars and over the last two weeks we’ve lost every single sunflower star.”
The marine lab has groups come to visit, but when people interacted with the starfish in the touch tanks it caused problems.
“It’s not a good idea to have a tank full of diseased stars,” Eberle said. “One of the guests pulled a leg off the starfish. It was disturbing for the tourists.”
Sean Craig, a marine biology professor at HSU, said the starfish disease is being researched by faculty members and HSU students.
Craig said there is a correlation between increased water temperatures in the ocean and higher levels of starfish wasting syndrome. He said it is related to El Niño which brings warm water with poor nutrients along the Pacific Coast.
“It’s called sea star wasting disease,” Craig said. “They get these lesions on their skin, and if it gets worse, the arms fall off and the sea star dies. It’s happening more on the West Coast.”
HSU faculty teacher and marine biologist Katie McDonald is investigating the cause of the disease and agreed with Craig.
“Increasing water and air temperatures stresses the animals and render them more susceptible to the disease,” McDonald said.
She said it is not just here on our Humboldt Coast that starfish are suffering. Sea star wasting disease is being seen in different geographic areas which makes it unlikely that there is a single cause responsible for the disease.
“The syndrome is widespread up and down the coast. The Northern-Eastern Pacific, where we are, but also the Western Atlantic, even in the Mediterranean Sea,” Mcdonald said. “There might be more than one disease agent that animals are coping with.”
Mary Colleen Hannon, a third-year marine biology student, and biology graduate student Jana Hennessy have spent the last two semesters doing research on sea star wasting with McDonald at the Telonicher Marine Lab. The team of HSU undergraduate and post-bachelor students studying the ecology of wasting disease presented their research last Friday at HSU’s IdeaFest.
“Sea star wasting syndrome is something we’ve seen and noticed a pattern,” Hannon said. “Our coast alone has a great eco-system for this kind of research.”
The research consisted of testing, specifically ochre stars’ response to elevated air and water temperatures. Hannon said their research was performed specifically on ochre stars (Pisaster ochraceous)because they are common and ecologically important.
“Ochre sea stars are abundant on our sea shores, it’s recognizable, bright orange and you can see them,” Hannon said. “Also, it was this population at the beginning of our study that was most affected.”
Hannon said their research findings did not produce the results she was expecting to see and said the starfish may have already been acclimated to warmer temperatures because of the time of year when the experiments were conducted.
“We were expecting to see more instances of mortality but we didn’t,” Hannon said. “Our stars were taken in the fall; so that means the starfish spent a whole summer in warm water and air when the tide was low.”
Hannon said the team of students has already begun the second phase of their research. They will use the same method of research, repeating the experiments they conducted in the fall: the current round of research started in March. The two have reason to believe the starfish could be seasonally affected.
In the meantime, Eberle is keeping starfish out of the touch tanks at the marine laboratory until health conditions improve. He posted a sign on the glass door opening to the patio observation area which described the phenomenon and apologized for the inconvenience.
“Whatever it is, we have it in our marine lab system,” Eberle said. “It’s not getting filtered out by our sand filters. Starfish are one of the easiest creatures to keep alive, they’re practically indestructible.”