Coastal constellations: The mystery of BC’s disappearing stars

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Special thanks to Publisher of The North Island Eagle, Kathy O’Reilly. Originally printed Friday, March 29th in The North Island Eagle

There is a type of star that doesn’t live in the sky. In fact, it doesn’t sparkle, there is no Big Dipper, and it’s not located in the Milky Way. You cannot get to it with a space ship, and instead of looking up you have to look down; sometimes way, way down! Better yet, “it” is more appropriately described as “them” and “they” are not far off planets of boiling gas but rather delicate life forms that live here on Earth with us – the sea star. That’s right! Not “starfish” but “sea star.” You see, a fish has a back bone making it a vertebrate. The sea star has no back bone so it is not a fish – it’s an invertebrate! Despite all their differences, there is still a constellation of factors that make the sea star just as important and interesting as real stars. Similar to the shooting stars that zip across the sky on a clear summer night, the sea star in BC is also falling. Researchers from the Coastal Ocean Research Institute, released a report a few months ago that raises concerns our BC sea stars are dying in rapid numbers from a wasting disease that is attacking several of the iconic species. After a major die-off between 2013 and 2014, millions of sea stars were lost and various species, like the BC Sunflower Sea Star, have yet to recover.

There are over 2,000 species of sea stars and they live all over the world’s ocean. For many sea stars, their rough, calcified skin gives them a gritty feeling; but some are soft. Don’t let their cute look fool you though! Sea stars are predators that spend their time hunting clams, snails, and other mollusks. Their strong appendages assist in ripping apart small crustaceans and can even dislodge barnacles. How you might ask? With the help of upwards of 10,000 tiny sucking tube feet under their arms! Scientists have also recently discovered that the Orche Star has special shoe glue that it can secrete as a permanent sticky grabber to rocks or prey; it also holds a special secret de-bonding agent if it needs it. The best part though? Wait for it … if a sea star manages to get you and stick you with its shoe glue, it then can eject its stomach outside its body in order to eat you up (kind of reminding us of the 1980s movie The Blob). Even worse, sea stars are cannibals! They will hunt and eat each other if food sources are scarce (insert shiver here).

And just when you thought the weirdness must be coming to an end, I have one more for our readers – the sea star has no blood and no brains! According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), instead of blood the sea star has a complex array of glands and muscles which pump sea water through their body in what is called a water vascular system. The sea water, like blood, provides all the oxygen and nutrients a sea star needs.

As Islanders, most of our interactions with sea stars are during tidal pool walks along the rugged and remote BC coast. Commonly, we will see stars with five arms that are bright colours like purple, orange, white, and red. These are called Orche Stars (or Pisaster ochraceus if you’re so inclined). Divers in BC might even see other relatives like the Brittle Star and the elusive Sunflower Star that sports an array of between sixteen and twenty-four limbs. While the sea star is most famous for its ability to re-generate its limbs and sometimes even portions of its body, what it cannot do is regenerate its species from extirpation, or worse, eventual extinction – and that is why we need to care.

As humans, we tend to focus our research attention, time, media coverage, political will, and conservation efforts on species we can see. Species like whales, wolves, sea otters, bears, crabs, various foul, salmon, multiple ungulates, and a host of others. What we often ignore, sadly, is what we can’t see – like those stuck below the surface of our oceans. The sea star is an important part of a balanced marine eco-system and our human concern is warranted. While the sea star might not have a brain, we humans do! The sea star is regrettably an under-studied species; our lack of knowledge makes it difficult to help our salty, primitive friends recover. As the ocean temperatures warm and pollutants create abyssal dead zones, one thing is for sure, we must begin realizing the deep need for a heightened sensitivity towards those that live below.

For further reading: Sanctuaries without Stars (NOAA)

Bryce Casavant is currently a Doctoral Candidate with Royal Roads University and recently received fellowship with the Social Science and Humanities Research Council of Canada for his work, In Search of a Wild Peace. Bryce is currently employed as a senior investigator and special provincial constable with the Province of BC. He is a former BC Conservation Officer.

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