Opportunities for ecology, conservation and public engagement through sea star wasting syndrome
The recent outbreak of sea star wasting disease (SSWD) along the US west coast is one of the most widespread disease outbreaks in a marine species. SSWD has caused system-wide depletion of Pisaster ochraceus, a charismatic member of tidepool communities. Pisaster is the original keystone predator and is disproportionately responsible for structure and functioning in intertidal communities. Although distressing, the SSWD outbreak presents a rare opportunity to contribute scientific insight into community response to top predator loss, test major tenets of ecological theory at an unprecedented scale, and connect the public with ecology and ocean science.
In addition to conducting basic research on the ecological consequences of SSWD, we have employed a multi-pronged approach to engage different audiences in our science. We have disseminated information formally through talks at academic conferences, interest group meetings, and public events. We have engaged the public through facilitation of citizen science involvement in documenting spread and virulence of the disease across the coast and through interactive events aimed at engaging the public in marine science. Finally, we have explored new outreach pathways through the creation of a corporate partnership with Rogue Ales and Spirits to raise public awareness about ocean health and funding for SSWD.
SSWD provides a useful connection between basic research and broader conservation – our research is intellectually driven by investigation of core ecological principles governing community structure and function, and has applications to marine ecosystem management as disease outbreaks will likely increase with climate change. Research on causes and ecological consequences of sea star declines from wasting disease is ongoing. Pisaster population densities have declined dramatically (over six fold) at sites along the Oregon coast. Surveys suggest relatively high juvenile abundance, indicating potential for population recovery. The ultimate source of SSWD is under investigation but is not yet understood, and ecological consequences will likely vary spatially. For example, it is possible that SSWD is triggered by stressor(s) related to climate change, but mechanism(s) remain unclear.
Particularly successful outreach involved exposing our audience to the scientific process and highlighting uncertainties. Additionally, monitoring of P. ochraceus adult and juveniles provides a prime opportunity for engagement of citizens because sea stars are easy to recognize and photograph and the public is inherently interested in the focal species and its recovery. Data from citizen science efforts are particularly useful as a way to document disease patterns across large spatial scales with fine temporal resolution.