Volunteer Profile: Sea Star Monitoring with Strawberry Isle Marine Research Society

 A cluster of healthy Ocre sea stars at low tide. Photo: R.Moore

A cluster of healthy Ocre sea stars at low tide. Photo: R.Moore

While working for Parks Canada on the remote west coast of Vancouver Island, I spent many of my days off volunteering for Environmental Non-Profit Organizations. One of these organizations was Strawberry Isle Marine Research Society. Along with other enthusiastic volunteers, I assisted SIMRS with monitoring sea star (commonly called star fish) populations in response to a mass mortality event occurring along much of the Pacific coast. Approximately 20 different species of sea stars have been affected by disease called Sea Star Wasting Syndrome. Once a sea star gets this disease, it develops white lesions on its body and limbs, which progresses quickly into loss of entire limbs and then eventually the sea star “wastes away” until it dies. My interpretation from what I witnessed was that these sea stars can very rapidly “dissolve” into almost nothing—sometimes leaving nothing but a white film on the rock.

Conducting sea star surveys allows us to track the health of sea star populations, and evaluate the extent to which Sea Star Wasting Syndrome is impacting marine ecosystems. We completed surveys once a month at low tide (generally very early in the morning) at several locations around Tofino and Ucluelet. Within a few hours, we would measure every sea star we came across in the set location and evaluate its health. Sea stars showing signs of disease were categorized into stages to track the proportion of sea stars affected by the disease over time.

Not only did this volunteer work allow me to gain experience in the monitoring aquatic species, I was able to apply what I was learning from my volunteer work while working for Parks Canada. I was able to improve visitor experience and increase their awareness of ecological change in the area and I felt very empowered and grateful to be able to pass this knowledge on to people around the world who had no idea this was occurring. 

Sea Stars are considered keystone species due to the significant role they play within marine ecosystems. Sea stars are important intertidal predators, controlling populations of numerous other little critters such as sponges, snails and mussels. This means that if sea star populations continue to decrease, these ecosystems that fisheries, First Nations, and the eco-tourism industry depend on may collapse. It is important for Canada from coast to coast, whether you live by the sea or not, to step up to the plate and invest in marine research and protection so organizations like SIMRS can continue to do this important work.

 Measuring a sea star in a tide pool in the early morning.  Photo: J. Edwards

Measuring a sea star in a tide pool in the early morning.  Photo: J. Edwards

I would like to thank Strawberry Isle Marine Research Society for giving myself and other volunteers the opportunity to take part in their important work. Strawberry Isle is a very small non-profit but their size certainly doesn’t limit them—from sea lions to killer whales, they are dedicated to researching and monitoring marine species and their habitats. Our earth is 71% ocean—it’s a good feeling to know that there are organizations out there protecting it for us.

If you would like to learn more or donate to Strawberry Isle Marine Research Society, please visit www.strawberryisle.org