Study links warming ocean with increased marine diseases

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Nearly all the world’s oceans were much warmer than average in 2015. Map via NOAA.

Is Maine’s lobster industry at risk?

Staff Report

Scientists have long been warning that rising ocean temperatures will have drastic effect on marine life. In the past year, large parts of the world’s oceans have been hovering near near record temperature levels, and new research from Cornell University pinpoint some of the impacts.

One study suggests that warmer ocean temperatures are linked with a widespread and devastating episode of sea star wasting disease that has affected 20 species along the West Coast of the U.S. Another warns that warming oceans may increase the levels of epizootic shell disease in American lobster in the northern Gulf of Maine in 2016.

Both were published Feb. 15 as part of a marine disease-themed special issue of the journal Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B.

The first paper proposes best practices to help protect ocean species, including improved marine disease surveillance through sea temperature monitoring, outlooks and projections. It summarizes cases where there are known links between disease outbreaks and temperature, including diseases that affect corals, turtles, lobsters, bivalves, starfish and eelgrasses.

“We can say when these organisms are going to be at risk of disease outbreaks based on temperature projections,” said Drew Harvell, Cornell professor of ecology and evolutionary biology and a co-author of the study. Jeffrey Maynard, formerly a postdoctoral associate in Harvell’s lab, is co-first author along with Ruben van Hooidonk, an assistant scientist with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and Jeff Shields, professor of marine science at the Virginia Institute of Marine Science.

“Shell disease has devastated the southern New England lobster fishery, and now with warming, it’s created a situation where the Maine lobster industry may be at risk,” said Shields. “Scientists are working with us to look out for increased lobster shell disease levels this spring.”

“Advanced warning of the right conditions for disease allows marine managers to increase surveillance and implement preventive strategies, such as reducing pollution, boat traffic and transmission dangers,” Harvell said.

In tracking the link between ocean warming and sea star wasting, the researchers looked at ochre stars, the most abundant sea star species along the West Coast. The results showed that warmer ocean temperatures led to higher risk of infection from sea star wasting disease, an affliction that wiped out 90 percent of some populations from Mexico to Alaska between 2013 and 2014. Adult populations fell to one quarter of pre-outbreak numbers in the San Juan Islands, Washington.

“The outbreak occurred during a period of anomalously warm sea water and stars in the San Juan Islands had a higher disease risk at warmer sites,” said Harvell.

In lab experiments, sea stars died faster from the wasting disease at warmer temperatures than infected stars in cooler water.

While there is no cure for the disease, “not moving stars around is a key recommendation,” said Harvell. “Future work should investigate whether survivors may have some natural resistance to the disease that might be exploited,” she added.

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