The starfish are dying, right here on pristine Cortes Island. They shrivel and wither, their arms fall off, and then they are dead. They do not leave behind pretty exoskeletons to pick up on the beach and take home as vacation souvenirs. They collapse into bleached and rotting blobs, and then the surf comes and washes them away. There is no dignity in their death.
When I walked the south beach a couple of weeks ago most of the starfish were in varying stages of decay, with a few healthy specimens scattered here and there. Where I live now, at Mansons Lagoon, a few stars still hide in the cracks between rocks, many in stages of deterioration. Where once low-tide exposed constellations of ochre and purple five-pointed stars, giant red sunflower stars and long-legged orange beauties, the bare pilings host only seaweed and mussels. Not a star to be seen.
This much we know, and it is not much: it is called Sea Star Wasting Disease (the very concerned Hollyhock naturalist keeps reminding me with thinning patience, they are stars, not fishâ€”but I claim poetic license). The syndrome was first spotted about a year ago in Washington State. Now it is rampant all down the West Coast from Alaska through California, and biologists estimate that by summer’s end, as the sea naturally warms, all the stars may all be dead. Twenty or more common species are affected. Several of these are endemicâ€”they are found only hereâ€”and so their vanishing may constitute a mass extinction. There have been starfish die-offs before, but never on this scale.
Every day new reports and papers appear, charting the devastation. The marine biologists are all over it, observing, testing, isolating, experimenting. It appears that the pathogen (a virus, a bacterium?) is not simply spread from animal to animal. They put a healthy one in a tank with a dying one, and the healthy one does not become infected. They feed them frozen squid and they do not get sick. On a diet of common sea water and local mussels, they sicken and quickly succumb. So the news is not good: it is something in the water. However the other part of the equation is, that the starfish are not robust. Acidification, plus the effort needed to survive in warming seas, makes them weak. They may just lack the antibody, or the strength, to fight off a common pathogen.
The starfish is a voracious predator,; what is known as a ‘keystone species’. Eacg starfish consumes a massive amount of shellfish and tiny organisms. Otters and birds eat the starfish, although not as a primary meal. Proliferating shellfish will hoover up micro-organisms, clearing the water and allowing massive algae bloom. The ecosystem will change and adapt, as all things do. A walk on Smelt Bay may one day look as different to us as a walk on the beach now would look to someone living here four hundred years ago. The starfish may rebound to former levels one day or they may not. Nature, as human nature, is both fragile and resilient.
The direct cause of this die-off is unknown. But the indirect cause is obvious and unspoken. Warmer seas mean more micro-organisms, and their hosts are stressed by the warmer conditions. This makes them sickly and more vulnerable to disease. The seas are warming, and the cause is widely known. We have exhumed much of the world’s carbon storehouse and burned it into the sky. Our addiction to fossil fuels is killing the starfish.
What is important right now is that we as a species do not fall into self-loathing or despair. We may grieveâ€”we must grieveâ€”but we must also continue to live and to love this planet. We may have ’caused’ this turn of events, but truly, we knew not what we did. Now, we know. We have no more excuses. Up until now we have lived like common animals. We have lived as starfish. We have bred and consumed like there was no tomorrow. But tomorrow has arrived, and it is time to look to the next tomorrow. It is time to stop acting like animals, and rise to the level of our humanity.
So what can we do?
For the starfish, directlyâ€”not much. If it works for you, you can pray. Prayer calms us and restores our perspective, which is important, because when we are panicked we are of no use to anyone. Prayerâ€”or contemplation, appreciation, stillness, meditation, or ritualâ€”reminds us that the world is bigger than us. It reassures us that in the cosmic scheme of things, we are pretty much identical to a grain of sand or a crustacean or the whole entire universe. We are equally small, equally worthy, and equally precious. It is hard to remember this when we are yelling our fool heads off. We can pray for the starfish, and more effectively, we can pray for the strength and courage to fight for them.
We can donate some money to science. We can respond to the scientific community’s call for citizen monitoring and reportageâ€”but take care. This will not be a day at the beach. If you go out to count starfish you may want to bring someone you can cry with.
But really, listen: there are things we can do, to attack the root cause of this horrific symptom. We can use less. We can consume less. We can drive less, fly less, slow down, be still. We can use less plastics and pharmaceuticals (all petroleum products), which ultimately wind up in the ocean. We can share our homes and our tools and our toys, instead of buying new ones from Walmart. We can start right now, to set an example for future generationsâ€”of which there are still likely to be many. Your action may feel like a drop in the ocean. But the ocean is made out of drops.
We can oppose off-shore drilling and fracking. We can stop tacitly or overtly supporting our friends and family to work or invest in the oil sands, or for companies that rape the earth. No matter how benign their motives. No matter how much they get paid.
We can stop that bloody pipelineâ€”the Northern Gateway Pipeline, whose only real purpose is to stoke global oil addiction. The First Nations of Canada are standing united against it, and they invite us to stand by them. There is every indication that we can do this. The tide of global consciousness is turning.
I am weeping for the starfish. My heart is heavy. But I will not be ground down.