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Everything in the Oceans is Dying


In comments yesterday, duck-billed placelot pointed me to a truly terrifying story. Basically all the starfish in the northern Pacific are disintegrating.

It’s normal for a tiny portion of starfish populations to suffer from so-called “wasting syndrome.” If the creatures’ skin is wounded or becomes too dry, little lesions can become infected and lead to the loss of arms. But the disease is typically isolated to one or two starfish among hundreds in a rocky tide pool. And even in bad cases, it rarely stretches beyond a single population. “The spatial extent is unprecedented,” says Pete Raimondi, chair of the ecology and evolutionary biology department at UC Santa Cruz, which monitors starfish populations on the West Coast. “If it’s as extensive as it looks like it is, then we’re talking about a loss of millions and millions.”

While starfish—which scientists call sea stars to avoid the misconception that they are actually fish—often recover from the lesions, infections on the West Coast are proving lethal. Populations of starfish monitored by Raimondi have essentially disappeared over a period of months. “They will start losing arms or bits of arms and in the end, they kind of disintegrate … into a gooey mess,” he says. An individual sea star may go from whole to remains in a period of days. Though starfish generally have the ability to grow new arms, in these cases wounds don’t heal and innards become exposed as the animal falls apart.

Nobody really knows what’s going on. Quite possibly it is related to climate change and warming water temperatures, making starfish, like bats and frogs, a whole group of animals that could be driven to extinction within a few decades. Some have speculated it is Fukushima radiation, but that reeks of knee-jerk conspiracy theory. Could be a freak bacteria or virus, and of course such things are always possible, such as the contagious cancer wiping out Tasmanian devils that seems to be wholly unconnected to human behavior.

Either way, given the centrality of starfish to the North Pacific tidal ecosystem, this could be disastrous for a number of species. Not to mention make visiting tide pools pointless.

As I said yesterday, I assume everyone paying attention to what is going on with the oceans drinks heavily. This news should make everyone start doing shots right now.

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  • TrexPushups

    So kid my wife is currently assembling should have no expectations of fish in his/her adulthood?

    • Certainly not ocean fish, no.

      Unless the fetus comes to enjoy jellyfish.

      • TrexPushups

        At least I will be able to sound really old and out of touch when I tell the grandchildren about how grandma and I loved to eat sushi.

        • You can also talk about the extinct animals you saw that for them will mean the same as unicorns.

    • Nathanael

      Given the dependence of humanity on the ocean foodchain, and the fact that things which are also very bad things are happening on land, I’m not sure the kid should have expectations of adulthood.

      Yeah, not optimistic.

      • TrexPushups

        Well at least the algae and jellyfish will be doing ok.

  • Anonymous

    Some have speculated it is Fukushima radiation, but that reeks of knee-jerk conspiracy theory.

    Conspiracy, n.

    1. the act of conspiring.
    2. an evil, unlawful, treacherous, or surreptitious plan formulated in secret by two or more persons; plot.
    3. a combination of persons for a secret, unlawful, or evil purpose:

    • joshua buhs

      Yeah, I was going to ask: what makes this supposition a ‘conspiracy theory’?

      • Lee Rudolph

        The “conspiracy” is (I guess) the supposed attempt by The Power( Companie)s That Be to suppress information about how extraordinarily dangerous continuing radioactive pollution from Fukushima actually is to the ecology of the Pacific Ocean and adjacent land masses.

        • Richard

          Because much of the Fukushima apocalyptic scare stuff has been effectively debunked. Go to skeptoid.com where they discuss the starfish story.

        • Theophrastus Bombastus von Hoenhenheim den Sidste

          You are correct.

          My favorite is the claim that Fukushima radiation is responsible for 14,000 excess deaths, but the EPA is trying to cover it up by suppressing data that show excess radiation in milk and rainwater.

          All of which is based on extraordinarily dubious statistical analysis, coupled with a brutally cynical attitude against technical agencies that report undesirable measurements.

      • LeftWingFox

        Only in the sense of trying to pin all our ills on a single notable target, like HAARP or the Trilateral Commission. “Scapegoating” would be a better term though.

        While there’s enough misinformation out there regarding Fukushima to make it a suspect, it’s also possible that a combination of fertilizer and global warming has tipped the balance to favour the disease over the response, or a natural mutation in the pathogen that’s made it far more virulent, much the way the Spanish Flu did.

        • Sockie the Sock Puppet

          I think it would be a conspiracy if the people pushing the line had some hidden, ulterior motive — say, they were employed by King Coal to undermine support for nuclear power to keep coal from being zeroed out.

          Some rabidly nuclear people will tell you that, but I don’t think there’s much evidence for that. (Coal people running false flag operations against wind, however, does have some support [if I remember corectly].)

          • LeftWingFox

            I just don’t think Eric is using the term “conspiracy theory” in the sense of an actual conspiracy, but rather in the sense of “paranoid delusion”, i.e. “tinfoil hat”.

        • JoyfulA

          The article says it’s happening in the Atlantic, too, which makes Fukushima a much less likely cause, and it’s affecting particular species of starfish.

      • anthrofred

        Considering the massive volume of water in the ocean, the distance of affected areas from Fukushima, and the amount of radiation involved, the only reason the suspect Fukushima would be a blanket fear of ATOMS!, which, like CHEMICALS!, is endemic in certain segments of the bourgeois left. (This is not to say that I would recommend drinking radium water)

  • Leeds man

    the contagious cancer wiping out Tasmanian devils that seems to be wholly unconnected to human behavior.

    Unknown cause, according to wikipedia, but wholly unconnected to human behaviour? Seems unlikely.

    • Certainly possible.

    • anthrofred

      In the sense that Tasmanian habitats have been altered by human contact and the population has been fragmented, sure, humans are involved. In that sense very little in the world is unconnected to human behavior. But that doesn’t mean the direct causative agent isn’t something that arose on its own in the environment rather than being from a lab or a factory, which is the meaning I grokked from Erik.

  • How long before the Dead Sea has more life in it than our oceans, which, just a few centuries ago, even decades ago, were teeming with life?

    I read somewhere that by 2050, most marine life will be dead.
    Anyone else remember reading that?

    • Sockie the Sock Puppet

      I’ve read that some forms of marine life will be pretty much wiped out. And some regions will be decimated or worse. It’s not going to be an evenly distributed extinction (at first) but most aren’t.

      The stuff we don’t have much use for will do fine at first, even flourish. Things with brains and shells and scales, not so much.

      • toberdog

        Right, see the articles about how jellyfish are doing just fine, to the detriment of a lot of other things.

      • tt

        I think this is too pessimistic. Many whale populations have recovered somewhat since the period of intensive hunting, for example. We understand fisheries management better than we used to and in many cases the politics is better too. The effect of climate change is hard to predict, but that goes both ways. No one who studies this stuff would describe the picture as “good”, but it is actually possible to exaggerate in the other direction.

        • Davis X. Machina

          An ocean pH of 4 isn’t going to be helpful for its denizens…

          • giovanni da procida

            Ocean pH isn’t going to get to 4. Over about 250 years, the average pH of the global surface ocean has gone from about 8.2 to about 8.1. pH is a log scale, so that’s a 30% increase in the concentration of H+.

            In other climate change related news, the Keeling Curve (the curve you often see of CO2 concentrations in air since 1958) has lost it’s funding. Again. One of the untold stories of climate science is the struggle the Keelings had to keep this study funded. NSF wants to fund “discoveries” not “monitoring” (although it isn’t really clear to me how you determine what a “discovery” is when you don’t know what “normal” is) and so they have been historically resistant to paying for “monitoring programs.”

            If you have a few extra bucks, and you want to contribute to scientific monitoring of the global environment, Eli Rabett has a nice summary and link to the contribution page.

        • Nathanael

          Unfortunately, the current trajectory seems to match the P-Tr extinction, in which 90% of all sea life died (estimate). Even seems to be the same cause — acidification.

  • I assume everyone paying attention to what is going on with the oceans drinks heavily.

    Ha! I drink heavily so I never shtart to think about ti.

    All we can do is sit back and see how the SciFi channel turns wall to wall jellyfish and dissolving starfish into horror movies.

    • “I assume everyone paying attention to what is going on with the oceans drinks heavily.”

      Looks like I picked the wrong century to stop sniffing glue.

    • Sargasso Sink

      I drink heavily, and I never drink water — Fish f*kc in it

      …used to, anyway

      • Bill Murray

        even everclear is at least 5% water

    • anthrofred

      Somehow, “Jellynado” seems actually plausible. Those things have gotta be sea-spout-grabbable. Ah, a whirling cyclone of stinging death. Good times!

  • El Manquécito

    I know a few naturalists (you know one you know a bunch cause they run in packs) and the number of scientists my age that are unexpectedly studying the catastrophic decline of their chosen area of study is amazing. It’s not what they signed up for.

    • guthrie

      You can find a few climate scientists and people at least qualified to understand it, denying AGW. But I’ve only heard of one naturalist/ biologist/ ecologist who denies that we’re fucking the entire global ecosystem up. All the rest are crying quietly at their desks or something.

      • Gregor Sansa

        You can find a few climate scientists and people at least qualified to understand it, denying AGW.

        Not really. You can certainly find people who question things at the margin, as in “it isn’t/won’t be that bad.” And you can find weathermen (yes, usually men) and physicists and engineers and the like who deny it altogether. But actual scientists in a directly-relevant field who deny it? I doubt you could find even one.

        • tt

          There are a few, like Richard Lindzen. Most of them are quite old.

          • guthrie

            Lindzen, Spencer are the top two I can think of. Spencer has had the embarassment of others correcting his UAH satellite stuff several times now, always upwards…

  • rudolph schnubelt

    this is occurring along the coast in british columbia as well. over the summer the starfish population literally melted away over the course of about 2-3 weeks. they went from being ubiquitous to scant within 1 month.

  • Poor Patrick may he R.I.P. He is survived by his long term friend Sponge Bob and a multitude of his beloved jellyfish.

  • Katya

    Maybe OT, but any suggestions for a charity that does good work in this area? Charity Navigator gives four stars to Oceana, any other suggestions? I’ve decided to focus my charitable donations on climate change and environmental issues.

  • Katya

    Or something broader, like the Environmental Defense Fund or Earthjustice?

    • Gregor Sansa

      Definitely go for something broader. Trying to hold together animals that are literally disintegrating as you watch is a losing battle.

  • Gus

    Will read when I have the ability to drink heavily. What a beautiful world we managed to fuck up in such a short time.

  • giovanni da procida

    As I said yesterday, I assume everyone paying attention to what is going on with the oceans drinks heavily. This news should make everyone start doing shots right now.

    Ironically, US flag scientific research vessels tend to be “dry” ships. So American oceanographers on the job can’t have a drink. European ships allow a drink or two with dinner. No shots, just beer and wine.

  • Gregor Sansa

    Not mentioned in this post, but certainly a factor in the mind of those who study this issue, is acidification. CO2 plus water makes acid. So separately from warming, our emissions are literally souring the oceans. Most animals with any kind of hard shell have some acidity level beyond which they simply can’t live. Coral reefs are already seeing widespread “bleaching” dieouts, but there could easily be a tipping point at any minute when, like these starfish, coral just stops existing within a matter of months.

    (The reefs I know best, off Belize, are already noticeably less healthy than they were just 2 or 3 years ago.)

  • Trollhattan


    What scientists didn’t know was exactly what role plastics played in transferring these chemicals into the food chain. To find out, Rochman and her co-authors fed medaka, a fish species often used in experiments, three different diets.

    One group of medaka got regular fish food, one group got a diet that was 10 percent “clean” plastic (with no pollutants) and a third group got a diet with 10 percent plastic that had been soaking in the San Diego Bay for several months. When they tested the fish two months later, they found that the ones on the marine plastic diet had much higher levels of persistent organic pollutants.

    “Plastics — when they end up in the ocean — are a sponge for chemicals already out there,” says Rochman. “We found that when the plastic interacts with the juices in the [fish’s] stomach, the chemicals come off of plastic and are transferred into the bloodstream or tissue.” The fish on the marine plastic diet were also more likely to have tumors and liver problems.

    While it’s impossible to know whether any given fish you buy at the seafood counter has consumed this much plastic, Rochman’s findings do have implications for human health, she notes. “A lot of people are eating seafood all the time, and fish are eating plastic all the time, so I think that’s a problem.”

    And there’s a lot of plastic out there in the open ocean. As Edward Humes, author of Garbology, told Fresh Air’s Terry Gross in 2012, the weight of plastic finding its way into the sea each year is estimated to be equivalent to the weight of 40 aircraft carriers.


  • GoDeep

    Quite possibly it is related to climate change and warming water temperatures, making starfish, like bats and frogs, a whole group of animals that could be driven to extinction within a few decades.

    Speaking of knee jerk, drawing a connection to global warming when the linked to article says otherwise is both alarmist & knee jerk:

    When other outbreaks struck the West Coast in recent decades, scientists identified warm water as the likely culprit. Starfish are primarily cooler water species, so when the water heats up, it compromises their health, making them more susceptible to infected wounds, Raimondi says. Bacteria also divide faster in warmer temperatures, meaning disease can spread more quickly. But the West Coast has been in a cold-water period. “Right now, we don’t really have a culprit,” Raimondi says.

    Read more: The Case of the Disintegrating Starfish | TIME.com http://science.time.com/2013/11/05/falling-stars-starfish-dying-from-disintegrating-disease/#ixzz2nOlK8fKv

  • heckblazer

    The transmissible cancer Tasmanian Devils suffer from is specifically a contagious tumor and not something caused by a virus. I note this because this is one of those bits of nature that give me the heebie-jeebies

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