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Volunteers, scientists uncover good news during sea star surveys at Cherry Point

posted Feb 2, 2017, 11:50 AM by RE Sources for Sustainable Communities   [ updated Feb 20, 2017, 4:56 PM ]
By Eleanor Hines, Lead Scientist

Eleanor Hines is the lead scientist at RE Sources for Sustainable Communities, where she leads citizen science efforts and provides technical support to the Clean Water program.


Although winter full moons mean that the Salish Sea’s extreme low tides occur long after dark, volunteers and scientists spent two chilly nights in January conducting sea star surveys under the full moon at Neptune Beach and Point Whitehorn in Whatcom County.

The volunteers — accompanied by retired biologist Michael Kyte and Multi-Agency Rocky Intertidal Network (MARINe) data manager Melissa Miner — were conducting semi-annual surveys with the Cherry Point Aquatic Reserve Citizen Stewardship Committee on the effects of wasting syndrome on local sea star populations.

Sea star wasting syndrome, documented in a never-before-seen magnitude over the past several years along the Pacific Coast, causes lesions that lead to tissue decay, loss of arms, and death. The disease was first noticed as early as the 1970s, but it wasn’t until 2013 and 2014 that scientists began observing large-scale outbreaks. 

Because the disease impacted sea stars from California to British Columbia, citizen science surveys have been instrumental in helping to collect data for scientists to analyze. Scientists analyze the data to help them better understand the causes of sea star wasting syndrome — including rising ocean temperature and densovirus — and study long-term trends.

Neptune Beach

On Tuesday, December 13th, 11 volunteers joined Michael Kyte for a sea star survey at Neptune Beach, north of Sandy Point at Lummi Nation. 

Biologist Michael Kyte has dedicated his retirement to continuing to lead citizen science efforts across Northern Puget Sound, conducting sea star surveys at several sites in addition to Cherry Point.

Citizen science surveys are conducted with specific scientific protocols to ensure the results can be compiled and utilized alongside other research. For this beach, a measuring tape is set out parallel to the tide once it hits -1.5 feet, and volunteers use instruments called “t-bars” to move along the measuring tape, searching for sea stars and documenting the count. Although it may be tempting, volunteers cannot move anything out of the way, other than loose seaweed, or turn over any rocks, meaning that only exposed sea stars are counted.

For nearly three hours, citizen scientists worked under the glow of bright headlamps, scanning the beach for sea stars of every size. When one is found, the species type, size, and health of the sea star is documented. Health is assessed based on presence or absence of tell-tale wasting syndrome signs, like lesions and missing arms.

In all, 159 sea stars (73 Pisaster ochraceus, 21 Evasterias troscheli, 63 Leptasterias hexactis, and 2 Henrecia leviuscula) were counted at Neptune Beach — the highest count at the site in the past three years of surveys. And of all these sea stars, none showed any sign of wasting syndrome. Only one sea star, which was found outside of the survey area, showed signs of the disease. See the trend graph for Neptune Beach

Point Whitehorn

On Wednesday, December 14th, 21 volunteers joined Michael Kyte and Melissa Miner for a sea star survey at Point Whitehorn Park, part of the Cherry Point Aquatic Reserve near Blaine.

Melissa Miner is a marine ecologist based in Bellingham who works for the University of California, Santa Cruz, where she coordinates programs along the West Coast tracking sea star wasting syndrome. All the data collected during sea star surveys at Neptune Beach and Point Whitehorn goes into the Multi-Agency Rocky Intertidal Network (MARINe) database, a partnership of agencies, universities and private groups committed to documenting the health of the West Coast’s intertidal habitat and providing information to the public. 

Melissa Miner presented at the 2017 Cherry Point Forum on sea star wasting syndrome — watch the presentation and download the powerpoint at re-sources.org/cherrypointforum.

The measuring tape was again set out — this time encircling several large boulders — and volunteers spread out to count the sea stars, marking their spot with yellow chalk to avoid double counts. The extreme low tide allowed volunteers to count stars in every crevice, many of which may have been filled with water in the past.

In all, 122 sea stars (55 Pisaster ochraceus, 53 Evasterias troscheli, and 4 Henrecia leviuscula) were counted at Point Whitehorn — the highest count at the site in the past three years of surveys. See the trend graph for Point Whitehorn

It is encouraging to see so many young sea stars at Neptune Beach and Point Whitehorn, after previous sea star surveys indicated that wasting syndrome had devastated many local sea star populations. While it is too early to tell if these results mean populations are recovering, local citizen science efforts will continue to play an important role in collecting data so that scientists can study long-term trends.

Get involved

Become a citizen scientist and learn how you can contribute to scientific research for Puget Sound health! Citizen science is one of the most important tools used for managing and protecting the intertidal shorelines and plant and animal species at Cherry Point and Fidalgo Bay Aquatic Reserves. 

Our free citizen science trainings will teach you how to identify, count and estimate plant and animal species in the intertidal zone, the area above water at low tide and under water at high tide. Once you've participated in a training, you can join our summer of intertidal surveys taking quantitative measures of plant and animal life and describe the slope and sediment on Whatcom and Skagit beaches.

Contact Eleanor Hines at eleanorh@re-sources.org or 360-733-8307 for more information about 2017 citizen science trainings in Whatcom and Skagit counties.

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