Sea stars are dying in unprecedented numbers along the West Coast. The cause is still under investigation but a virus that’s been around since the 1940s is a suspected cause, according to research published last fall in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. No remedy is in sight.
The affliction has been described as turning starfish into goop — first producing white spots on the bodies followed by limbs that curl and writhe before breaking off and disintegrating. The outbreak of what’s been called sea star wasting disease affects 20 species of sea stars, and the massive die-off was first noticed in June 2013 by Olympic National Park rangers.
Amazingly enough there is no system in place for government to respond to this breakdown in the ecosystem, which U.S. Rep. Denny Heck hopes to remedy. Heck, an Olympia Democrat, is sponsor of legislation he’s calling the Marine Disease Emergency Act, for which he wants Congress to set aside $12 million to coordinate research by federal agencies.
Heck also wants the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to declare the wasting syndrome an emergency.
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He further wants agencies to establish a rapid response team that can act quickly to disease emergencies, and he wants a permanent working group to advise the government on such emergencies.
Heck tried to pass a similar bill a year ago.
Money is not the only obstacle to saving sea stars. Another is that Heck is asking Congress to embrace real science — and action — at a time when the body is polarized, paralyzed and pushing back against scientific findings.
In fact, the House majority was scheduled to be taking up “reform” legislation on the floor this week that would water down science as a guide to environmental policy and potentially let industry have influence over scientific panels advising the Environmental Protection Agency.
So far, Heck has the company of fellow Democrats in the Washington delegation including Democratic Rep. Derek Kilmer of Gig Harbor. Heck and Kilmer earlier founded what they called the Puget Sound Recovery Caucus to focus on needs of our inland sea. Also on board with the legislation are a half-dozen coastal congressmen from Oregon, California, Florida and New Jersey.
Sea star wasting syndrome may be linked to climate change, and the disease is reported to progress most rapidly in warmer waters. A lot could be at stake.
One Seattle Times report said that in the Whidbey Island area where sea stars used to be, scientists are now seeing explosions in green urchin populations. And in an area north of Vancouver, B.C., that is leading to fewer sea grasses, which are needed by young spot prawns.
Marine epidemiologist C. Drew Harvell of Cornell University, who is based at Friday Harbor Labs in Puget Sound, describes sea stars as “sentinels about the conditions in our oceans, which are a huge economic interest to us.”
Indeed. Heck and this sea stars project deserves support.