Sea star wasting expands, new recommendations emerge


Purple starfish afflicted with sea star wasting near Newpor, OR

Purple starfish afflicted with sea star wasting near Newport, OR Photo courtesy of Sheanna Steingass,

Sea stars continue to waste and die along the US West Coast, and while researchers aren’t yet certain what’s causing the outbreak to spread, they’re beginning to suspect a combination of increased water temperatures that weaken the animals and leave them vulnerable to infection from opportunistic bacteria and parasites.

Dubbed Sea Star Wasting Syndrome (SSWS) the condition emerged in patches nearly a year ago, and by June had become serious enough that scientists convened in Newport to discuss what they were seeing, what was known and what remained to be learned.  Since that meeting, the disease has spread both north into Alaska and south to Baja California.

“The expansion up into Alaska is really problematic because the California current comes across the northern part of Vancouver Island and then down, and this has jumped into a whole other current system,” explained Steve Rumrill, a biologist with the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife.

Rumrill and his colleague Dr. Tim Miller-Morgan, an aquatic veterinarian with Oregon Sea Grant, have been busy drafting documents that synthesize what is known about the outbreak. They summarized those documents at the recent State of the Coast conference in Florence. The papers underline key issues and research recommendations for continued monitoring, studies about pathology, investigation of ecological impacts, handling of captive animals and outreach programs. Recommendations include creating uniform signage and information displays for the public, and establishing a database for scientists to post observations about the disease in their areas.

The outbreak’s cause remains elusive. While some institutions are documenting what appears to be an infectious trend among stars, pathologists have been unable to find evidence of a specific infectious agent.

“Many of the pathologists are saying that there is no evidence of an infectious agent,” Miller-Morgan said. “That doesn’t mean there isn’t one. But when they are looking at slides, they aren’t seeing any evidence that would traditionally be associated with an infectious process.”

They have found a variety of bacteria and parasites associated with infected stars, however. This supports the leading theory that some initial cause—whether pathogenic or environmental—deteriorates the stars outer layer, exposing them to secondary invaders. Increases in water temperature appear to be a significant factor in the syndrome, but the exact role that plays has yet to be determined.

“We have identified new areas and directions that need more research, and we have added more questions to the pile,” said Miller-Morgan. “The other thing is that there really is an impetus now to get together more regularly.”

On the bright side, field biologists have recently observed relatively large numbers of juvenile sea stars in a wide variety of tidal zones along the west coast.

“It is encouraging that the juvenile sea stars are beginning to emerge,” said Rumrill.  “Juveniles have become a prominent component of the remaining populations at several sites, and the mixed groups of tiny and middle-sized stars may be an indicator of multiple recruitment events.  However, it is not clear what role these new juveniles will pay in the overall recovery of sea star communities.”

The outbreak is gaining national attention since reports of a similar outbreak on the East Coast.  Marine animal health experts from both coasts will meet at an upcoming Fish Health Conference in South Carolina to discuss parallels in the syndrome. Rumrill and Miller-Morgan also plan another West Coast symposium to share what researchers and aquarists are learning about the syndrome and what might be done in response.

For more information, or to assist with a citizen science project, visit the Pacific Rocky Intertidal Monitoring website.

Contest enlists students, teachers to stop invasives

Media ContestOregon Sea Grant and the Oregon Invasive Species Council are enlisting high school students and teachers across Oregon in a multimedia art contest, “Don’t Let It Loose,” urging classrooms to avoid releasing school pets and lab animals into the wild.

Winning student artists and their teachers will receive prizes of up to $400 in each of two categories: static images, and moving media including videos, animations and motion graphics. In particular, organizers are encouraging entries that can be translated into mobile apps and other new technology.

Entries will be judged on how well they convey the “Don’t Let It Loose” message, their visual effectiveness (is the message memorable? Does it compel action?), universal appeal (is the message clear to everyone, regardless of age, language or education level?) and originality.

The contest ties in with an ongoing educational campaign created by Sea Grant’s Watershed and Invasive Species Education (WISE) program, which works to bring invasive species education into the classroom via teacher training, lesson plans and classroom activity guides. The program focuses in part on the perils of turning non-native classroom animals loose in the environment, where they can out-compete native species and become major pests. The program got a boost last year from Oregon cartoonist Jan Eliot, whose popular syndicated cartoon “Stone Soup” featured a storyline about the issue, and who permitted Sea Grant to use her cartoon image in its education campaigns.

For details about the contest, which has a March 15, 2015 deadline, visit the OISC Website.


Students debate wave energy at coastal conference

FLORENCE – Oregon State University Fisheries and Wildlife students exchanged arguments about whether wave energy should be supported in Oregon at last weekend’s State of the Coast conference – and  every statement had to to be backed by a scientific source.

“We are trying to emphasize critical thinking skills,” said professor Scott Heppell,  who taught the debate class. “This is not about memorizing facts, but to learn how to objectively evaluate the evidence available for any given natural resource issue and come to a rational conclusion.”

Fisheries and Wildlife students debate wave energy in Oregon at the State of the Coast Conference.

The eight students were randomly assigned to one side of the issue in class regardless of their personal opinion, and tasked with finding ways to support their arguments. The two teams of four sat at adjacent conference tables on the Florence Events Center theatre stage. Heppell started the session off with an overview of the issue to the audience of about 60 conference attendees.

The debate was part of a new conference format intended to reach a broader audience. Heppell’s wife and fellow professor, Selina, organized the student participation at the conference.

Team Yes hit the ground running with data suggesting that wave energy would significantly reduce Oregon’s reliance on coal and natural gas. Jordan Ellison, one of the undergraduate students on the team, reinforced the science with an economic incentive.

“Wave energy is expected to produce thousands of engineering jobs, as well as business for the coastal communities,” she said.

Following a strong opening by their opponents, Team No retaliated with dollars and cents. Estimates vary, but the cost of one facility would be upwards of $300 million, they said.

Team Yes also made a case for establishing marine reserves  around the devices and asserted that the structure would be beneficial to marine organisms. Team No shot back with concerns about disrupted migration patterns, and an overall lack of knowledge as to how these impacts would actually play out.

“We think the ecological and economic costs of these structures outweighs the benefit,” said Michelle Huppert, a member of Team No, in her closing argument. “Really what we need is more research on the marine environment before we make these costly decisions.”

While there was no clear winner in the debate, Huppert’s view was recently corroborated by Ocean Power Technology’s decision to withdraw its support for wave energy in Oregon, citing the exorbitant cost.

OSU scientists deploy wave energy test device

OSU scientists deploy wave energy test device

Research on the environmental and economic impacts are still ongoing at OSU, however, and organizers hoped the debate would help both students and community members understand the issue as renewable resources continue to gain popularity.

“Most of these questions aren’t science question; they are societal questions,” Heppell said following the debate. “Science can answer the question: ‘if we want to have wave energy, what are the expected outcomes?’”

Both teams said the exercise taught them to look at problems objectively. The future of wave energy on the Oregon coast is uncertain, but critical thinking skills will benefit these students as they tackle other marine issues throughout their careers.


State of the Coast Draws 200 Coastal Stakeholders

Sea Grant director Shelby Walker opens 2014 State of the Coast FLORENCE – Roughly 200 people from around Oregon came together on Saturday at Oregon Sea Grant’s State of the Coast conference to discuss ocean change and adaption. The conference, at the Florence Events Center, began with a welcome from Oregon Sea Grant’s director, Shelby Walker, and 9th District State Representative, Caddy McKeown. The keynote speaker was author Paul Greenberg, who informed the “fishy crowd” about the inspiration behind his best-selling books, “Four Fish” and “American Catch.” Among the audience were students from Oregon State University and University of Oregon, along with professors, scientists, representatives from NOAA, Oregon Parks and Recreation. the Nature Conservancy, and legislators. This year’s conference was the 10th annual of what used to be called the Heceta Head Coastal Conference. Unlike previous years, multiple break-out sessions characterized State of the Coast, a change that was met with positive feedback from participants. The morning was filled with “stage-setting talks” focused on changes the coast has experienced in the past several decades. A new component of the conference focused on food concerns, a theme reflected in a presentation by Newport’s Local Ocean restaurant owner Laura Anderson as well as in break-out sessions. The event offered students an opportunity to share their marine-related research. Student researchers from the OSU Marine Resource Management and the U of O School of Law programs presented their poster projects to attendees who helped judge the content. The categories were effectiveness in communicating research, accessibility of the information presented, and overall design for reaching a general and diverse audience. Keynote speaker Paul Greenberg speaks with State of the Coast attendee The afternoon allowed attendees to choose break-out sessions based on their interests. These included seafood cooking demos, a student debate on wave and wind energy by the OSU Fisheries and Wildlife department, a hands-on educational session on oysters, and a discussion of the sea star wasting syndrome that is sweeping the west coast, among others. State of the Coast was filled with multi-faceted learning, networking, and cooperative exchange between Oregon’s coastal stakeholders. The one-day conference was concluded by 5th District State Senator Arnie Roblan, whose remarks highlighted the importance of addressing coastal change. “We have a major need to better understand the environment we live in,” Roblan said. “This is a place where local people and the entire coast can come to learn about coastal issues.”

State of the Coast conference coming Oct. 25

State of the CoastStudents in the marine sciences and related fields have until Oct. 10 to submit posters for the 2014 State of the Coast conference, taking place Oct. 25 at the Florence Events Center in Florence, on the southern Oregon coast.

State of the Coast – formerly known as the Heceta Head Coastal Conference – invites everyone from scientists to students to industry to citizens to learn, network, and engage in the current and future state of Oregon’s marine environment. The one day conference, organized by Oregon Sea Grant, includes informative talks on current marine science and policy: El Niño, Sea Star Wasting Syndrome, Coastal Energy, Local Food on the Coast, Hazards, and more.

Join us for seafood cooking demos, hands-on learning, and fun.

The student poster session is a dedicated time when conference participants can view posters and interact with student scientists as they explain their marine-related research and results. This is a chance for students to showcase their research, gain professional experience, and network.

Oregon Sea Grant invites posters from advanced undergraduates (juniors or seniors), recent graduates and graduate students. Poster submissions are welcomed in any discipline related to issues and opportunities facing the marine environment: biology, anthropology, law, engineering, policy, chemistry, business, ecology, environmental science, management, and more!

Posters will be judged by conference participants on their effectiveness in communicating research, accessibility of the information presented, and overall design for reaching a general and diverse audience. Prizes will be awarded to the top posters.

For more information on poster submissions:

Registration is $35, $25 for students and includes lunch. For more information and registration visit