Is Unbeaching Starfish Sustainable?

We’d like to welcome the newest member of our IT team, Alexandra “Ally” Burguieres, who will be interning with Traveler this summer. She’s just back from working on her dissertation in Belfast, Northern Ireland, where she realized that saving sea stars is no day at the beach.

Last month in Killybegs, a town on the gorgeous west coast of Ireland, my friend Nick and I became obsessed with throwing the starfish we unexpectedly found on the beach back into the water. As we climbed into our rental car, tracking sand into the interior and fighting over who would drive the left-hand operated stick shift, we were giddy with our good deed. Then, crashing as if from a sugar-high, we became equally obsessed with the possibility that we had spoiled a natural or necessary process. Should we have left them on the beach? Had our good intentions had ill effect?

After three weeks of starfish-haunted nightmares, I swallowed my pride and contacted a marine biologist to get the facts. These starfish were cute. I couldn’t stop thinking about them.

The first thing I was told, by Dr. Chris Harrod, a lecturer in Fish and Aquatic Ecology at Queen’s University in Belfast, was that the “new” PC term for starfish is “sea star.” Armed with the latest and greatest terminology, I was now ready to contact the Irish Wildlife Trust.

“Throwing them back into the water would have no effect on the natural balance,” voluntary marine conservation officer Tim Clabon wrote in an e-mail response to my frantic questioning about whether the little pointy-armed lads and lasses would be OK. (Turns out sea stars can reproduce both sexually and asexually and are, as individuals, either girls or boys.) He also added that the individual sea stars probably welcomed it. If left out of the water for too long, he said, they will dry up and die. Getting “beached” is “one of the many risks they face living in a marine environment.” I was glad to hear him validate the gravity of their plight.

Clabon was kind enough to take a look at my portraits of them, and identified the species as Astropecten irregularis—the sand star. He added that they are typically seen underwater, and as a burrowing species would probably bury themselves in wet sand to stay hydrated if necessary. A strong storm or swell could have pushed them up onto the beach, or an extremely low tide could have left them stranded.

Either way, they are native to the area.

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As a side note and interesting fact, Clabon added that some tropical species can reproduce by discarding an arm that grows into a new sea star. But, he cautioned, “No Irish species can do this.” He needn’t have worried. Throwing sea stars back into the water is one thing. Only a monster would go around ripping off their arms.

Special thanks to Andrew Blight, a Ph.D. student in ecology and evolutionary biology at Queen’s University, who offered key facts and interesting tidbits about seastars in Ireland.

Photos Above, by Alexandra Burguieres; Below, by Nicolas Mexal

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