After flipping to the SF Chronicle app on the trusty iPad this morning I found my eyes riveted to a story on one example of the sort of ugly, mindless ways that myriad creatures have routinely met their deaths since the dawn of life. This example was news to me:
- San Francisco Chronicle – Peter Fimrite: Mystery ailment is wiping out coast's starfish;
Fimrite has been covering environmental news for the Chronicle for some years now. He writes well and aims high with a trenchant, punchy style. He has a familial predisposition, one hazards to say. Back in the day – early 70s – when I joined the Chronicle, the mere whisper of "Fimrite" would elicit nostalgic tales of a legendary witty writer and raconteur who shortly before I arrived had left for Sports Illustrated and other such lush pastures. Peter is son of that fabled Ron Fimrite, carrying the legacy forward in good fashion (Ron Fimrite passed on about three years ago). Peter Fimrite's reporting seems to me sometimes a bit, um, on the slapdash side but the enthusiastic writing gives it great propulsion.
So I knew the 'starfish' story would be a good read, which it is. The news is that a virus and perhaps a stew of opportunistic bacterial infections or maybe something else (nobody knows, it is a mystery after all) is killing sea stars up and down the West Coast of the US and on up into British Columbia. It's not a particularly picky killer. Ten distinct species are succumbing in vast numbers. They develop a few lesions, then legs start to wither, shred, and fall off. Eventually the animals – top predators of the sea floor and key controllers of shellfish populations – turn entirely to glop and slough off the rocks and pier pilings quite dead. In deep waters they just floomp and expire where they sit. Sunflower stars, the largest sea stars in the world, are getting plowed. The purple Ochre star, a favorite of tidepool gazers, is disappearing from its anemone gardens too. Ditto short spined sea stars and giant sea stars. Fimrite talks to a few marine ecologists, all of them stumped and appalled by the dying and worried how badly out of balance the nearshore bottom communities will get.
Here's a quarrel, a little one. Fimrite refers first and most often to these creatures as star fish, and clarifies just once that they are also known as sea stars. I offer that environmental writers who get their info from experts, from scientists, ought to at least mention that 'starfish' is considered passe by the in-crowd. Sure, maritime museums and their curators can get a bit stuffy insisting that jelly fish are best called jellies because they are not fish, and sea gulls ought be called just plain gulls because they don't always live by the sea and 'gull' is specific enough. Yet, readers are entitled to know that sea star is the officially ordained lingo even if most people will still call them star fish.
Here's a more serious quarrel. It's too bad that he mentions, as having a legitimate place on the list of suspects in the killing, possible radiation in debris that has washed to the West Coast of North America all the way from the melted reactors at Fukushima in Japan. Throwing in a justification quote – "we're not throwing anything out" – by a worried expert hardly defends this bit of tabloid harum scarum. By this limitation, perhaps Hoyle and Wickramasinghe style panspermic viral sea star contagions from outer space are still in play as well. Seriously, Mr. Fimrite, somebody with standing thinks that an epidemic selectively destroying multiple species of one highly specialized creature and that extends from San Diego to Vancouver Island might demonstrably be due to outwash from Japanese reactors many thousands of miles away? Who told you that? I hereby allege, assert, aver, avow, and allow that such a person is a nut.
*UPDATE: Here is an example of the mischief caused by Fimrite's mention of Fukushima.
But all in all, not a bad piece of reporting. After the first read, suspicion and hope grew that this is enterprise journalism, maybe even a scoop. But no, the news has, like an invertebrate-slaying virus itself, been slowly building over the past few months. The Chronicle story, polished as it is in most respects, is catch-up reporting. In fact, the story would be stronger if told, not as though it is breaking news, but as an intensifying public drama that has already gone through a few plot twists and turns.
A quick search turns up these examples of this news irruption, listed older first:
- Sept 12; CBC (Canada TV) News/British Columbia: Dead starfish in Vancouver waters puzzle scientists ;
- Oct 7; CP – Dana Moore: Starfish Deaths Alarm Vancouver Aquarium ; with video.
- Nov 5; Time Magazine – Katy Steinmetz: Falling Stars: Starfish Dying From "Disintegrating" Disease ;
- Nov. 7; Santa Barbara Independent – Tyler Hayden: Sea Star Wasting Syndrome Reaches Santa Barbara County ;
- Nov. 14; Half Moon Bay Review – Julia Reis: Coastsiders, researchers lament loss of starfish ;
- November 29; NBC News Miguel Almaguer: Ocean Mystery: Disease kills millions of starfish ; A fine and disturbingly visual video broadcast report on the evening news. Here, also, is where we see the full context of the Fukushima suspicions – a scientist says lots of people send in emails asking about this easily imagined but bunkum suspicion. Full quote : "We have not ruled that out yet, but we haven't ruled it in either."
Grist for the Mill: UC Santa Cruz Dept. of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology Sea Star Wasting Syndrome reports with updates and biological background information (source of pic above).