Saving the sea stars: Marine Disease Emergency Act introduced in Congress

(File photo, courtesy Laura James)
New hope that the mystery killer ravaging the sea-star population might be identified and stopped: “Diver Laura” James – whose sea-star monitoring project was just featured nationally again, in this MSNBC story – sent this announcement from South Sound U.S. Rep. Denny Heck:

To address the sea star wasting syndrome and other major marine disease emergencies, this week Representative Denny Heck (WA-10) and the Puget Sound Recovery Caucus introduced the Marine Disease Emergency Act. The proposed legislation would establish a framework for declaring and responding to a marine disease emergency, and to provide the science community with the resources to proactively protect marine ecosystems from being irreparably damaged by cascading epidemics.

The Marine Disease Emergency Act establishes a declaration process for the Secretary of Commerce, acting through the Administrator of NOAA, to declare a marine disease emergency. The proposed bill outlines the factors needed for a 120-day rapid response plan, including the necessary engagement of individuals and entities at federal, regional, state and local levels to assist in a coordinated and effective response aimed at minimizing the impacts and preventing further transmission. The legislation also requires a post-emergency report detailing current disease status and providing recommendations for improving responses to future marine disease emergencies.

The Marine Disease Emergency Act establishes a national data repository to facilitate research and link different datasets from across the country, as well as a “Marine Disease Emergency Fund” under Treasury in order to accept donations from the public and the industry.

“Sea stars do not function underwater in a vacuum,” said Representative Denny Heck, who represents the South Puget Sound area. “They are in fact a keystone species vital to the ecosystem. When these species face an epidemic, we must engage the scientific community in an organized, rapid-response approach to determine what can be done to halt the damage to our oceans. This could be a sign of a deeper problem.”

Professor Drew Harvell of Cornell University, who studies the ecology and evolution of coral resistance to disease, expressed support for the new policy, saying “Disease outbreaks of marine organisms are predicted to increase with warming oceans and so it’s very welcome to see legislation like the Marine Disease Emergency Act introduced.”

“When you pierce the surface of our picturesque water vistas, what’s underneath is not OK. We have sea stars that are wasting away, pulling themselves apart and limbs disappearing from their bodies. That is not OK. And it’s only getting worse,” said Sheida Sahandy, executive director of the Puget Sound Partnership. “We need the ability to respond to these kinds of emergencies as quickly as we would an earthquake or a hurricane. This action creates the support for the kind of nimble response that is required in order to react to fast-acting threats to our ecosystem.”

Representatives Heck and Kilmer co-founded the Congressional Puget Sound Caucus last year to reflect their commitment to preserving the Puget Sound. The caucus is the only Congressional working group devoted exclusively to promoting Puget Sound cleanup efforts, and builds on the legacy left by former Congressman Norm Dicks, a longtime advocate for the health of the Puget Sound. The caucus continues to be focused on promoting the three region-wide Puget Sound recovery priorities: preventing pollution from urban stormwater runoff, protecting and restoring habitat, and restoring and re-opening shellfish beds.

The question now – will the bill pass and become law? Laura is working on gathering grass-roots support, and we’ll update with ways for you to voice your opinion, if you are interested.

15 Replies to "Saving the sea stars: Marine Disease Emergency Act introduced in Congress"

  • sc September 18, 2014 (9:05 pm)

    “The Starfish Story”

    One night, on a sandy beach, a terrible storm started. It rained. The wind blew so hard that it shook the houses along the beach. The next morning was foggy and gloomy. Many starfish had washed up on the beach. A man named Buck walked out on the beach to look around. Peering into the mist he saw a young man walking along the beach. He was tall and slender. Buck saw him throwing starfish back into the ocean. Buck walked up to him and said, “Why are you throwing those starfish back into the ocean? They’ll just wash back up on the beach again. It doesn’t matter.” Without a word the young man bent over, picked up a starfish, and threw it with all his might. It went way out in the ocean. The young man turned to Buck and said, “It mattered to that one.”

    Author: unknown

  • TBone September 18, 2014 (9:55 pm)

    Wow, that’s intriguing and interesting to know! Did I miss something though? Last story I read on this, no one seemed to know the cause and now it is linked to warming temperatures in the oceans? Is that known for sure? I wonder if it might have more to do with Fukushima, as it seems to be something common along the entire west coast and not just puget sound, or one localized area…

  • Sonoma September 18, 2014 (10:06 pm)

    Please do keep us posted! And thank you to Diver Laura. I’m so tired of a do-nothing Congress, so I appreciate Denny Heck’s efforts.

  • m September 18, 2014 (11:13 pm)

    @ TBone – in July 2013, it was reported that Sea Star Wasting Syndrome was happening from New Jersey to Maine albeit to a lesser degree than what’s happening this year on the west coast.

    Many thanks to Diver Laura for your tremendous efforts on this!

  • anonyme September 19, 2014 (6:10 am)

    sc: thank you for your story. We need to extend that philosophy to all species.

  • miws September 19, 2014 (7:56 am)

    Thank you, WSB and Laura, and yes, please keep us updated.


    sc, thank you for the inspiring story.


    anonyme, spot on.



  • CEA September 19, 2014 (8:46 am)

    I echo the support – fantastic work. We are in dire need of such a law. Thank you for keeping us posted!

  • heather September 19, 2014 (9:54 am)

    Very good news indeed!

  • diverlaura September 19, 2014 (12:01 pm)

    I just got off the phone with Kati Rutherford (Communications Director at U.S. House of Representatives) and she explained that due to time constraints that they did not bring the bill forward yesterday. She explained some of the next steps, how the bill will be introduced after the election, then going to committee, what they will be asking for (there will be a comment period where we can testify I think?) and hopefully some things we can do to help! They are hoping to put together a question answer session here in Seattle (since it is based a lot on our starfish and coming out of our neck of the woods). They are not sure if there will be enough time in the current session to get it through all the hoops, but are fully committed to reintroducing it next year as well. I get the feeling they are serious about it and willing to go the distance (its not just a PR stunt). I will post the information she sends me on my blog and also get it to WSB for follow up.

  • diverlaura September 19, 2014 (2:30 pm)

    I got followup from Kati…

    they DID introduce the bill yesterday, I must have misunderstood what she said. She meant that they were very rushed so it doesn’t have as many co-sponsors yet as they would want, or make a big media splash, but it is definitely on the books! H.R. 5546. Then when they come back, will move on to the next steps.

  • pupsarebest September 19, 2014 (4:23 pm)

    Adding my thanks and gratitude to “Diver Laura” James for her tireless work on behalf of the starfish, Puget Sound and the planet.
    Three weeks or so back my husband, friends and I ventured over to the LaPush area.
    We made our way out to the tip of a large, man-made rock jetty—I looked for starfish along the entire length, and saw less than a dozen.
    Interestingly, those I did see were only along the south side of the jetty, saw none on the north side.
    My heart aches for this amazing, wondrous, natural world which we destroy, bit by bit, every day, through our actions and our inaction.

  • KTS September 19, 2014 (6:56 pm)

    Please spread the word that any healthy-appearing starfish at Alki Beach and elsewhere in Seattle need to be left alone.

    My husband and I were walking at Alki several weeks ago when the tide was way out and saw a man wading out of the water toward the beach with a starfish in hand. When it became clear that he was not going to turn around and put it back soon, I asked what he planned to do with it. His answer? “Cook it!” (Are sea stars eaten in Eastern European or Russian cultures, which seemed to be the most likely background of this man, based on his appearance and accent? We had heard of sea urchins being eaten, but not sea stars.)

    I asked that he please consider putting the sea star back instead, given that we were at a park and also that so many sea stars were dying. He was not aware of sea star wasting disease and seemed a bit annoyed with my request, but did go ahead and put the sea star in a sandy area a short distance from where he had found it. I then took it back to the rockier area it had come from, and my husband held it in place against a rock for about 10 minutes until it was reattached enough to stay put despite the wave action. We also hung out for long enough that the man moved on and the tide came in further to make it less likely that someone would bother the sea star again (at least that day).

  • diverlaura September 19, 2014 (11:52 pm)

    KTS, thank you for your intervention, I will be sure to put the message out any way I can…
    Actually that topic is on my list of photo’s that I hope to shoot over the next few months. Some illustrative, some educational and some just plain fun. To give you an idea, the first ‘test shoot’ was for the #Riverforall photo contest and i dressed in trash that Neal Chism had recovered from the river, but stood up, surrounded by a frame of the cranes. The message being “Duwamish Stands” (no matter what we do to her)
    Read more here:
    complete with Neal Chism’s response

  • Mike September 20, 2014 (12:08 am)

    KTS, it’s not legal to harvest starfish anywhere in Washington State.
    Many people who did not grow up in WA state typically don’t know much about the rules and regulations surrounding our natural habitat. Those sand dollars, gotta leave them alone. Snails, negative again.

  • JoAnne September 20, 2014 (9:02 pm)

    What good is legislation when we are cramming more and more people into the city, piling on more and more thermal and contaminant stressors into the environment?
    God knows what all these new people are dumping into the Sound, and the killing of trees and expansion impervious surfaces continues.
    Our mayor and city council seem willing to let unconstrained growth continue well past the point where the last tree is gone and the last living thing in Puget Sound is dead.

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