Tuesday, January 5, 2016

Sea Star Wasting Monitoring: Countdown to Low Tide

Most regular people spent the evening of Tuesday, November 24th preparing for Thanksgiving. People all over the country made pumpkin pies, baked casseroles, and picked squashes. Some people went on long runs to increase their appetites and others ate big meals to stretch their stomachs in preparation for the big night. However, a small, nerdy handful of people did none of those things. These intrepid adventurers got ready for Thanksgiving by braving the wind and the cold to count sea stars. I was lucky enough to be one of those nerds, and below is the story of that adventure.

The third Tuesday in November was the seasonal survey of our long-term sea star monitoring plots at Indian Island County Park. The PTMSC has monitored these plots four times a year ever since the 2013 Sea Star Wasting Disease outbreak. We are partners in a West Coast monitoring program coordinated by the Multi-Agency Rocky Intertidal Network (MARINe) designed to monitor the health of sea star populations and severity of disease outbreaks. 

Tuesday afternoon I packed a backpack with all the necessary supplies. Data sheets, check. Bleach solution, check. Tiny tape measures, check. As I gathered the equipment and chatted with volunteers, I felt the familiar buzz of fieldwork anticipation. At 3:30 pm, I was set to go. Only five hours and seven minutes until low tide. When searching for sea stars, it’s best to wait for the water level to drop.

I popped into the staff meeting and the mood was excited and interested. Everyone was anxious to hear how our local stars were faring. The wind picked up outside, but I didn’t think anything of it until the lights flickered and went out. And stayed out. 20 minutes later, I was still tapping my foot, willing the power to come back on. At the Marine Science Center, no power means no pumps. When the pumps go off, the fish and invertebrates in the aquarium get understandably unhappy. If the power stayed off, it would be time to bust out the backup generator for the second time this month. I already had a long night ahead of me and was not quite ready for that. Just before 5 pm, the lights flickered back on and I raced out to the Marine Exhibit. With the pumps whirring and the alarm reset, I was ready for dinner. Three hours and sixteen minutes until low tide.

Kitz, planning his next bit of mischief.
I walked in my front door to find my (saintly) housemate and AmeriCorps teammate, Zofia, cooking spaghetti for dinner. And there was my (notably less saintly) cat, playing with a toy in the living room. But on second glance, it wasn’t a toy. It was a real live mouse. After one failed attempt to sh(r)ew it out the door, I gave up. “Kitz,” I said sternly to my cat, “You brought that mouse into this house and it’s your job to take it out.” Then I stomped off to put on as many layers as I could. Arm movement comfortably impeded, I sat on the couch and tried not to imagine the next time I’d see my new furry housemate. Two hours and forty minutes to go.

The view between the boulders.
The wind buffeted the car on the ride to Indian Island. There were downed trees and branches all along the road. Earlier, I had consulted the other members of the Sea Star Monitoring Team and we had decided that the conditions might be uncomfortable but were unlikely to be dangerous. Carolyn, Zofia, Betsy, and I arrived at the pitch black Indian Island County Park where we met volunteers Dennis and Howard. Two hours until low tide and we needed to relocate the survey markers that denote the corners of our plot. 

Good thing we arrived early. It took forty-five minutes, but we managed to find all the requisite survey markers. We even had a few extra minutes to collect burrowing sea cucumbers. These orange, squishy creatures are aptly named. They burrow into sand and wedge in between boulders to protect themselves from wave shock and predation. They also happen to be the favorite snack of our Stimpson’s sun star and it was time to stock up for the winter. One hour and seven minutes.

Howard Teas teaches the group about mottled star identification.

Toni and Rich, two more dedicated citizen scientists arrived to help with the survey. Once they were suited up, we got rolling. In pairs, we surveyed parallel transects through our two adjacent plots. We needed to check in every crevice and under every rock. However, to reduce the negative impact of the monitoring on our study site, we do not turn over rocks in search of stars. Instead, we crawled along the ground, bent over rocks, lay on our bellies and struck all manner of undignified poses (we aim for every stone unturned)! We found a wonderful assortment of amazing organisms under those rocks —white sea cucumbers, coralline algae, and chitons galore — including a handful of healthy sea stars. As 8:37 pm came and went, the tide went slack at -1.48 feet, and we started to wrap up. Within our plots, we saw large and small healthy ochre, mottled, and six-rayed sea stars. We even saw a large blood star just outside of our study area. Each of them gave us a little bit of hope that sea star wasting might be waning once more. Although this disease will likely be present for years to come, it bolsters my optimism to see resiliency in this wild population we love so much. 

Here are a few photos from our survey: 

A healthy mottled star
A healthy blood star
A healthy ochre star
The crew surveys plot 2.
Zofia lies down for a better look at this ochre star. 

REBECCA MOSTOW is the Marine Exhibit Educator and an AmeriCorps member serving at the Port Townsend Marine Science Center.


  1. Thanks Rebecca for this update, there's hope for the Stars yet! BTW you have a knack for writing and storytelling, I felt like I was there with the team Ü Best, Pete t (PTMSC volunteer)

    1. Thanks Peter! We just completed our first survey of 2016 which turned into a similarly exciting night.

  2. I agree with Peter that it is an engaging post. I would like to know the comparative data from other counts of the same plot. Small data, but close to home.

    1. Thanks! The data from these plots, along with data collected all along the West coast, are sent to the Pacfic Rocky Intertidal Monitoring Group for analysis. For more information on the MARINe program and what they do with our data, check out their website: http://www.eeb.ucsc.edu/pacificrockyintertidal/data-products/sea-star-wasting/


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