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Laguna’s Sea Stars and a Warming Pacific

By Tom Osborne

“I received a $400 check in the mail from a group of schoolchildren from Arkansas,” said Dr. Drew Harvell, a Cornell professor of ecology and evolutionary biology. The check came from a group of children in Arkansas troubled about sea stars disappearing from oceans. So they did a fundraiser to help with research into why this was happening on the Pacific Coast. Arkansas schoolchildren, in short, want to protect Laguna’s sea stars!

Dr. Harvell did what any highly intelligent person with a conscience would do: she thanked the kids, matched their contribution to her research from her own pocket, and raised a much larger sum from a generous donor.

News of the die-off of sea stars from Mexico to the Alaskan coast in 2013 triggered all of this concern. My wife, being a tidewater docent in Laguna Beach, had conversations with me about the withering and death of 80-100 percent of these beautiful, multicolored marine creatures. Newspapers covered this, but reportage indicated the cause seemed largely uncertain. That was before the Arkansas kids stepped in and insisted on answers.

While the mystery of the large-scale die-off has not been completely solved and Laguna’s sea stars have not come back in notable numbers, Dr. Harvell and her fellow researchers have made progress. They have been able to correlate the beginning of the 2013 decimation of iconic Laguna sea stars with a warming Pacific Ocean. From the American Association for the Advancement of Science: “timing of peak declines in nearshore waters coincided with anomalously warm sea surface temperatures. The rapid, widespread decline…may have large ecosystem-level consequences.” AAAS researchers linked the warming ocean to the lethal so-called sea star withering disease. (See advances.sciencemag.org/content/5/1/eaau7042).

So a warming Pacific has been scientifically correlated with the demise of sea stars. I suspect the precise mechanisms causing the withering disease are not yet fully known, yet the five-armed, spiny-skinned creatures’ susceptibility is increased greatly by higher temperature seawater. Scientists are well aware, on the other hand, of how lethal a warming Pacific has been for coral reefs and our oxygen-generating kelp forests. They know, too, how warming rivers from Alaska to California are threatening salmon stocks.

To me, the sea stars, kelp forests, and salmon are our canaries in the mineshaft, warning us to address the main cause of the warming Pacific: the climate crisis. Says Scientific American magazine: “Up to 90 percent of the warming caused by human carbon emissions is absorbed by the world’s oceans…” The only way the warming of the Pacific can be arrested is by us shutting off the carbon emissions tap. I see no panacea for achieving that. What scientists and economists are urging, however, is pricing carbon.  The most effective way of doing that, many of them say, would be enactment of the Energy Innovation and Carbon Dividend Act (HR 763). Our Congressman and Laguna resident Harley Rouda is a co-sponsor of the bill. Passage of this measure would reduce carbon emissions by 40 percent in 12 years and 90 percent by 2050. Doing this is necessary but likely insufficient to meet the crisis. Other steps will be needed as well: ending subsidies for fossil fuels, installing solar panels, obtaining a larger mix of renewable energy, and driving electric or hydrogen fuel cell vehicles, for example.

Those school children in Arkansas care deeply about saving sea stars along the coast of a state and town most have only seen in photographs. These kids, and our own, are counting on us to protect the beautiful marine critters whose fate could be our fate.

 

Tom Osborne is a retired Santa Ana College history professor and grandfather. He’s writing an account of California’s rise as a national and international environmental leader.

 

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