Enjoy an excerpt from a podcast’s interview about Drew’s newest book Ocean Outbreak here.
Introduction–What Rises with the Tide?
In 2013, something began killing over 20 different species of starfish underwater from Mexico to Alaska, the largest wildlife disease outbreak in the ocean. Infectious disease is not just the canary in the coalmine, a sentinel of ocean change, but is itself the new major change agent in the ocean. Our oceans and the life forms theysupport are under siege, threatened by a formidable collection of forces causing sudden mass mortalities. Marine disease works in concert with human activities such as climate change, sewage pollution and aquaculture and threatens our ocean food chains. Microbes, such as viruses, bacteria, fungi and protozoans are scary because they are changeable, constantly evolving, and not under our control. Infectious diseases have repeatedly changed human history and now are changing the sea around us.
Corals–Foundation of Biodiversity Eroded
Coral reefs create the foundation for the richest biodiversity in our oceans, but are under fire from a warming ocean. The seafan corals we studied began dying across the Caribbean and we studied how the survivors successfully fought back with the most ancient immune system on the planet. Today they flourish in the Caribbean, one hopeful example of a resilient coral fighting back and winning the battle. But for other corals, the hot seas of the 1998 El Nino was the tipping point of an underwater eruption of infections that sent our international team to the heart of the coral triangle of the Pacific and Palau, Guam, Indonesia, East Africa, Hawaii, and Australia. By 2010, over a third of corals were at risk of extinction, largely because of infectious and non-infectious disease.
Starfish–Ecological Domino Effect
In 2013, millions of starfish died in gruesome fashion on the US west coast. Their arms curled, then ripped off and they fell from the rocks. Our brilliant collaborator identified a new virus as the killer, but we were powerless to halt its spread. The mortality became the world’s largest wildlife outbreak, a pandemic decimating over 20 species of east and west coast starfish and spreading through China’s oceans and to the shores of Australia. Removal of ecological keystones caused battalions of sea urchins to rise up and mow down the kelp beds, leaving a pink wasteland of crustose algal pavement behind, sort of like replacing a rainforest with a parking lot. The recovery to date can be told as a tale of two stars, the ochre that is recovering and the sunflower star that is not.
Nature’s Services to the Rescue
A warmer ocean is a sicker ocean and we need new science and political will to reduce the risks of outbreaks. Waste management on land and on aquaculture farms can reduce the rain of pathogens from human activities downstream to the sea, but greater innovation is needed to manage ocean health. What about turning to the oceans, the ancient seat of all life, for innovative ideas for how to fight pathogens? The plants and animals that form our ocean biodiversity are a test bed for natural resistance. Solutions that reduce pathogens abound in the form of bio-filters of bivalves, natural filtration by seagrass beds and new phage therapies that unleash natural viruses to eat pathogenic bacteria. There are stunning new discoveries from both human and wildlife microbiomes about how health can bubble up from within organisms. Can we turn the tide towards health if we strive to harness new innovation at the edges of scientific knowledge?