Sea stars along much of the North American Pacific coast are dying in great numbers from a mysterious wasting syndrome. As yet, the cause of the syndrome is unidentified, and it’s not clear whether it’s due to an environmental stressor, disease, or an interaction between the two. The combination of its geographic scope, lethality across many species, and unknown cause make this a particularly worrisome phenomenon and one that requires urgent attention. In fall 2013, North Central Coast MPA Baseline Program partners (i.e., California Ocean Science Trust's MPA Monitoring Enterprise, California Sea Grant, California Ocean Protection Council, and California Department of Fish and Wildlife), with funding from the Ocean Protection Council provided rapid funding to: (1) assess the extent, virulence, and timing of wasting events along the California coast, particularly in the north-central region, and (2) establish a baseline where one did not exist to interpret change to communities. The activities conducted (at least in part) with the funding include:
assessment of extent and prevalence of wasting;
continuation of long term sampling to maintain a baseline for the abundance of Pisaster ochraceus adults and recruits;
maintenance of our interactive websites with particular emphasis on Citizen Science activities; and
visualization of disease progression.
We continue to assess the progression of wasting, however, we are now moving into a new phase in the assessment of sea star wasting: the ecological consequences from the loss of these species. This has two major thrusts: (1) assessing recovery of affected sea star species through recruitment of new individuals, and (2) determining the initial ecological changes to the rest of the community resulting from the loss of sea stars. These questions are incredibly important for ecological and policy considerations. The ecological importance stems from the impact of the decline of top predators on the system. The policy considerations relate to the expectation of community change that accompanies loss of sea stars and the effect of the change in the ability to assess current management actions such as the effect of MPA related protection from take. Without a data driven understanding of the community level effects of wasting, assessment of MPA protection may be, at best, unreliable, and at worst, misleading.