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A murderous marine mystery off the west Canadian coast…

Sea Star and starfish, British Columbia

Sea Star and starfish, British Columbia 2011

For the people of Vancouver, British Columbia, the summer of 2013 will probably go down in the history books as one of the nicest summers ever. The temperatures were always mild, and never rose above 30oC, the sky was always blue, the ocean was slightly chilly but sparkled playfully, and the famous Pacific Coastal rains stayed away.

But in those bluish-brown waters off Vancouver, a different story was unfolding beneath its serene surface… A chilling chain of mysterious disappearances and horrific deaths by a process so hideous, Hollywood movies could be made about it.

Yes, it was true – the happy people of Vancouver were obliviously and heartlessly kayaking, snorkelling, diving, boating, jet-skiing, kite-surfing, paddle boarding and swimming in and over an ever increasingly barren ocean.

I admit, before the story broke, I was kayaking further south at Port Ludlow in Washington State, and did note that the usually prolific purple starfish was very low in numbers. The rocky cliffs that characterise the bay were unusually barren – with two circuits only unearthing one lone starfish. At the time, I dismissed this as a local peculiarity, but now I wonder if its all part of the murderous marine mystery…

As the story goes, it wasn’t until nearly the end of summer, as the Vancouverites, after a few days of rain in early September, began to remark on the equally pleasant fall they were having, the the alarms began to ring:

Port Ludlow Starfish, 2013

Port Ludlow Starfish, 2013

The starfish and sea stars were dieing.

All that was left were dessicated white corpses attached to rocks. The rocky coastline of British Columbia is usually richly endowed with gigantic orange sea stars, legs radiating like a cartoon sun, equally large and anemic looking white sea stars, and the ubiquitous big blobby purple star fish. However, in September, a diver alerted the staff at the Vancouver Aquarium that the sea stars were dieing. As Vancouver aquarium staff rushed out to collect the animals to be studied, the healthy looking critters would disintegrate into a white goo, like the nazi’s dissolving as the ark was opened in the original Indian Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark movie!! A mysterious wasting disease was put forward as a possible explanation. Only time will tell as starfish and sea stars were shipped off to be tested for disease. Washington scientists are now on alert, looking for evidence of disintegrating sea stars off the Washington State, just south of British Columbia. If it’s happening, they aren’t talking – yet.

But that wasn’t the only mystery happening in the Pacific waters of the British Columbia coast this summer…

A few weeks later, it was announced that British Columbia’s sardine fishery had collapsed. Again. The British Columbia sardine fishery was quite prolific in the mid-1920’s to 1947 when it all rather abruptly and catastrophically collapsed. At the time, the collapse was attributed to overfishing. However, as abruptly as the sardine disappeared in 1947, they magically reappeared in 1992. That got a few scientists scratching their heads and now it is thought that maybe the collapse is not so much a collapse as ‘changing regime’s,’ the specifics of which have not yet been identified. Temperature didn’t appear to be a factor as the sardine originally disappeared as the water cooled in the late 1940s and 1950s, but as water temperatures increased again in the 1970s and 1980s to temperatures warmer than the 1930s, the sardine didn’t reappear. In the end, the paper by McFarlane and Beamish felt the answer lay in looking at ecosystems as a whole and the changes that occurred as a result of temperature changes and sardine populations elsewhere where a result of changes in the ocean causing changes in the diatoms, tiny little microscopic algae that the sardine feed on.

Starfish, British Columbia

Starfish, British Columbia in 2011

However, the local native people of western Canada didn’t feel there was any collapse in the sardine industry this year – the sardine simply moved further offshore to cooler waters. This was further supported by the fact the humpback whales which usually hug the western coast of Vancouver Island were also further out to sea this year, feasting on the small fish! Scientists were at least finding evidence of sardines in hake fish further out to sea…

After the announcement that the sardine fishery had ‘collapsed’ and the humpback whales were further out, no doubt disappointing countless thousands of tourists this year (and whale-spotting operators) the people of British Columbia were to be hit by another stunning revelation that all was not well in their waters – the famous Orca pods that cruise the Georgia Strait between Vancouver and Vancouver Island, had gone silent. They were also hunting in smaller groups and further out than usual, even mixing their hunting ground with the rarer Bigg’s Killer Whale species.

Of course, not to be outdone, California managed to attract two dead oarfish, which according to the Japanese mythology, are harbingers of ‘ the Big One…’ Before the devastating earthquake and ensuing tsunami that hit Japan March 11, 2011, no less than 20 oarfish washed ashore! Well, since the good people of coastal California live on a complex network of faults, the most famous being the San Andreas, then the notion that beached dead oarfish herald the big one got a lot of traction in the media! But not everyone was convinced and Deep Sea News (a blog by scientists who work in the marine ecosystem in one form or another, and have a distinctly Star Trek like mission to educate the world about all things Deep Sea), quickly refuted any true connections between beached oarfish and earthquakes.

Now, what is causing behaviors of the sea denizens to change, species to abruptly succumb to disease or vanish off the Western Pacific coastline is not something that can be answered by this humble blog. Is it temperature change?  Is it a change in water chemistry in response to changing temperatures? Has the water become more acidic? Has the water become more saline? Has the chemistry and temperature changed sufficiently that the microflora and fauna have changed, thus attracting new species while deterring the established species? Is there a mysterious outpouring of gas on the ocean floor near the plate boundaries (dammit, I was going to say that, but got beaten by Dr. Grant!) electrostatic charges which might indicate that a big earthquake is coming????!!!

Only one thing is certain, from what started out as a random article reported here, and an odd occurrence noted there, it all adds up to something, er, fishy off the west coast of North America.


UPDATE: As it turns out, the West Coast of the USA has been also seen the a mysterious plague wiping out the starfish – as reported in the non-west coastal paper, the Chicago Tribune (November 5, 2013).

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