Understanding “melting” sea stars
Recently, some sunflower stars in British Columbia, Washington and California—and even along the Seattle waterfront—have been suffering from a condition that gives the impression of "melting." With your support, the Seattle Aquarium is part of the effort to understand the condition and its cause. Below, Seattle Aquarium staff veterinarian Lesanna Lahner shares background and an update.
Low-grade disease in sea stars is not uncommon. It’s previously been documented on a waxing/waning, potentially seasonal, occurrence in both captive and free-ranging sea star populations along the West and East coasts. In the past, these events have been mild. However, since October of 2013, a higher prevalence of disease in the wild population of several sea star species has been documented near Vancouver, B.C., and the Seattle waterfront.
Commonly called “starfish,” sea stars are echinoderms and one of the most familiar marine invertebrates. Roughly 1,500 species of sea stars exist between the intertidal zone and deep abyssal depths of over 20,000 feet. Sea stars are considered a top predator and a keystone species as their diet includes many animals— including sea urchins, barnacles, snails, limpets and mollusks—that have few natural predators.
As part of a multi-institutional collaborative effort to quickly respond to this unusual mortality event in sea stars, Seattle Aquarium divers Jeff Christianson and Joel Hollander were able to collect some healthy and diseased stars from the waters surrounding the Seattle Aquarium in late October. Since then, Seattle Aquarium divers have continued to monitor levels of disease along the waterfront.
The animals collected were sampled according to a protocol carefully developed by several institutions, and samples were sent to our collaborators in New York at Cornell University and the Wildlife Conservation Society. Investigators are looking for viral, bacterial and other potential causes of disease and are also processing samples collected by the Vancouver and Monterey Bay aquariums.
At this time, no definitive cause of disease has been identified. Samples have also been sent to local laboratories and a local veterinary pathologist, Dr. Michael Garner of NW ZooPath, to aid in the efforts to determine the cause of disease. The U.S. Geological Survey National Wildlife Health Center has also become involved and is helping to coordinate efforts and investigate other potential causes of disease including toxins and fungal infections.
Determining the cause of disease in wild animals, such as sea stars, takes time due to the complexity involved in identifying normal flora versus disease-causing pathogens, as well as evaluating for things such as environmental changes caused by factors such as contaminants and changes in water quality. There have been suggestions that radiation from Japan may be involved in the sea star wasting syndrome; however, a recent report by the Washington Department of Health shows that no abnormal levels of radiation have been found in several species of fish and shellfish from the Pacific coast of Washington. Teams of marine biologists, wildlife veterinarians, microbiologists, pathologists, and others are working together to determine the cause of this unusual mortality event.
Q & A with incoming board chair Randy Tinseth
Incoming chairman Randy Tinseth joined the Aquarium’s board of directors in 2009. He serves on the Executive Committee and has been actively involved in our Splash! fundraising gala, working on corporate sponsorships in 2010 and 2011, and serving as co-chair in 2012 and 2013. Tinseth is the vice president of marketing for Boeing Commercial Airlines, and previously served as the customers leader for the company’s 747-8 program, as well as its director of product and services marketing. Here, he reflects on the accomplishments of 2013 and shares his goals for the year to come.
Q: What do you think was our greatest mission accomplishment in 2013?
I’d say our number one accomplishment of 2013 was the opening of the harbor seal exhibit. It’s a great addition to Aquarium, a fantastic new home for Barney, Q and Siku, and it’s providing countless opportunities for us to share our message of marine conservation with visitors.
Q: What are the top three mission goals for 2014?
First: for everyone involved at the Aquarium—staff, volunteers and board members—to advance our mission every day and every way. Second, to be an active member of the community in defining the future look of the waterfront, and to do our best to ensure that the Aquarium will be the focal point of its future development. Third, to continue to make progress on the Aquarium’s long-term master plan.
Q: What challenges do you anticipate we will face?
Construction, construction and construction. Between the new seawall, the viaduct and the tunnel project, the waterfront will be “under construction” for years. We need to make sure the community knows we are alive, well, and open for business.
February focus on giant Pacific octopuses
Puget Sound’s giant Pacific octopus (GPO) population received a lot of media attention in 2013—reinforcing the Seattle Aquarium’s longtime work to draw awareness to these amazing, intelligent animals. Those efforts reach their apex each winter, with our annual octopus census, Octopus Week event, and octopus symposium.
The Seattle Aquarium launched its GPO census in 2000. Volunteer divers are asked to visit specific sites in the Puget Sound area to collect data points while counting the number of GPOs they see. The data is then compiled and evaluated at the Seattle Aquarium. The goals of the census are to establish a baseline of how many GPOs live in Puget Sound, determine if the population is healthy, and detect fluctuations in the population from year to year—while serving as an effective outreach effort to our local dive community. This year’s census is scheduled for January 18–20; click here for more information.
Our always-popular Octopus Week event takes place in February and features a variety of fun, educational activities for all ages. The highlight of the week is the “Octopus Blind Date,” when two GPOs meet in our Octopus Exhibit for the very first time and—it is hoped—decide to mate. (Aptly enough, this event takes place on Valentine’s Day.) This year also sees the return of our octopus release, when visitors can watch a live video feed as Aquarium divers release one of our octopuses to a new home below Pier 59. Visit our website as the event nears for more information and a schedule.
Our octopus events wrap up in March, with our biennial GPO workshop. Drawing scientists from around the world, the event highlights current GPO research and features papers and round-table discussions about octopus husbandry, biology, physiology, ecology and behavior. More details can be found here.
These important events, which speak to a broad cross-section of our local community—and even reach an international audience—wouldn’t be possible without your generous support. We’ll continue to keep you updated on our GPO research results.
Nighttime beach walks attract new audiences
On two chilly evenings in late November and December, 30 Seattle Aquarium Beach Naturalist staff and volunteers met at South Alki/Constellation Park to welcome a combined total of over 300 visitors to 2013’s Nighttime Low-Tide Beach Walk events.
The events, re-launched last year after a long hiatus, are designed to attract visitors to the beach at a time that’s not necessarily popular for beach-combing—but should be. “You see lots of different animals on the beach at night during the winter,” says Community Outreach Coordinator Janice Mathisen. “Some animals are beginning to lay eggs, which are more visible in the dark and damp. Plus, running around in the dark with a flashlight is just a lot of fun…it makes people feel like they’re kids again.”
The two 2012 events were held on extreme low-tide nights, and as late as beach regulations allow so visitors could witness the tide’s lowest point.
A few changes were made to the 2013 events: they were held on nights with slightly higher tides—which allowed them to take place on weekends and reduced impact on the delicate beach habitat. They were also scheduled earlier in the evening, making them more accessible for families with young children.
Says Janice, “These events tend to attract a bit of a different audience, and our conservation messaging really hits home while people are exploring the beach. Everyone—visitors, staff and volunteers—seemed to be delighted with the experience.”
Donor support is vital for this program. We thank you for helping us to bring our mission to new groups of eager learners!
A message from our President & CEO
2013 was a year of change, excitement and looking toward the future at the Aquarium: we received funding for and took the first few critical steps in our master planning process—which could lead, eventually, to an Aquarium that is 70 percent larger than its current size and capable of attracting 1.2 million visitors per year. We opened our beautiful new harbor seal exhibit on time and on budget, bringing thousands of new visitors through our doors during the busiest summer months. We completed the installation of the new solar array on the south roof of Pier 59, a project in partnership with Seattle City Light that will not only generate power for the Seattle Aquarium, but will also create more awareness of this alternative energy source thanks to its highly visible location.
We also welcomed the start of the City’s seawall replacement project—a vital effort that we enthusiastically supported when it came up for a public vote in 2012. The replacement of the seawall is the launching pad for Seattle’s revitalized waterfront, of which the Seattle Aquarium is destined to be the centerpiece. We have much to look forward to, and are excited to be an integral part of this pivotal moment in our city’s history.