Since June 2013, millions of sea stars along the West Coast have disintegrated and died. Scientists have relentlessly tried to identify the cause of the “sea star wasting syndrome.” (See map of locations with outbreak.)
Typically, the first signs of an afflicted sea star are white lesions appearing on its body. Shortly thereafter, sea stars lose their limbs and their internal organs disintegrate. Although sea stars have the ability to regenerate limbs, the disease often progresses too quickly for them to recover. The exact cause of this disease is unknown. Scientists believe that sea star wasting syndrome may be due to a viral or bacterial infection, and could be exacerbated by increased water temperature. Populations of the ochre and sunflower sea stars, two common West Coast species, have been hit especially hard. Similar die-offs have occurred in the past, but never at the magnitude we see today, and over such a wide geographic area.
Earlier, I wrote about coastal and marine spatial planning and the tools necessary to effectively implement it. Today though, I wanted to discuss the regions and industries that are already putting these ideas to good use.
At the state level, Washington, Massachusetts, Oregon and Rhode Island have already created comprehensive ocean plans, and several other states—such as New York and several states along the Gulf of Mexico—are starting to do the same thing. This is a great start, but the ocean does not obey state lines. As a result, regional partnerships are essential in facilitating coordination between federal, state, tribal and local entities.
Ocean Conservancy created a Tsunami Debris Field Guide that highlights the most common items of debris that have been washing onto West Coast beaches. Click the image to download the complete version.
Marine debris generated from the March 11th tsunami is drastically different from the ocean trash that was already plaguing our ocean. Over the coming months, there may be many difficult-to-collect debris items from the tsunami such as housing and construction materials, fishing gear and vessels. We could also find potentially dangerous items such as combustibles, as well as personal items related to the victims. Therefore, it is critical that volunteers and beachcombers document each item of debris they encounter on beaches with the highest level of scrutiny.
Workers clean off the dock that washed ashore in Oregon. Credit: NOAA
Recently, contractors hauled away the final piece of a concrete dock weighing more than 165 tons that washed up on an Oregon beach after a 14-month journey across the Pacific Ocean. The dock was one of four that broke loose from the Japanese fishing port of Misawa during last year’s tsunami. One dock was found in Japan, a second turned up in Oregon in early June, and two are still missing.
The largest tsunami-borne object to travel across the Pacific and wash up on the West Coast so far, the dock generated immediate interest from the public. More than 1,000 people a day visited the site to pose for photos and be part of history. An enterprising artist even painted a breaking wave along one of the dock’s massive seven-foot-high sides.
Essentially a floating island, the dock carried a complete ecosystem of Japanese coastal species, transported more than 5,000 miles across the Pacific Ocean. Scientists identified nearly 100 different species of sea life on the dock, including a number of species—like the brown kelp Undaria, the Asian shore crab and the North Pacific sea star—that are known to pose especially high ecological risks when introduced to new territories. Continue reading »
A 66-foot dock that washed up in Oregon was identified and confirmed as tsunami-related debris. Credit: NOAA
As Interim President and CEO of Ocean Conservancy and a resident of the Pacific Northwest, I watched with concern the news of a large Japanese dock landing in Oregon after being washed away by the devastating 2011 tsunami in Japan. In the Tacoma News Tribune, I explain why we should be concerned about the tsunami debris heading our way and what we can do:
While it is still too soon to know exactly how big a problem this debris will be for U.S. shores, the International Pacific Research Center estimates that 5 percent or less of the approximately 1.5 million tons of debris in the Pacific Ocean could make landfall.
To prepare for what might come, we should prioritize baseline monitoring, modeling and outreach in communities. Ocean Conservancy has been working closely with the Obama administration, including the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, as they ramp up response efforts.
In addition to monitoring and volunteer cleanups, we also should be advocating for the resources that may be needed to deal with the aftermath of a disaster of this magnitude.
Donning our snorkel gear, my son and I entered the tranquil bay. We’d been looking forward to spring break in Baja Mexico and had read about this spot in the guide book. But we were soon disappointed; there were few fish to see and most of the coral was damaged or dead. The unsuspecting tourist might not notice but as a trained marine biologist I know what a healthy reef looks like. This wasn’t it.
Coral reefs are under assault. Overfishing and coastal development are partly to blame, but ocean acidification is an emerging threat to corals and a host of other species that rely on calcium carbonate for their shells. As CO2 increases in the atmosphere, it dissolves in the ocean and it is changing the very chemistry of the sea.