The post below was sent as an issue of my newsletter, Ready for Rain.
It started on what seemed like a typical autumn day. The weather was calm and Sachi was feeling the pull of crab traps. That feeling, which I feel too, is similar to the feeling of gambling; a rush that comes from the chance to win. Every fisher feels it, I assume, and many know that as long as you’re on the water, there’s no way to lose.
We boarded Short Story and headed out to Deer Harbor with our supplies in a small bucket, a cooler, and a dry bag. The whole process happens by rote at this point, having gone to check the traps on most days of every week since mid-July.
This day would be different, but not that remarkable in isolation. As one of the traps came to the surface, I heard Sachi say, “Whoa!” in a tone that was part surprise and part anxiety. It looked as though an alien had entered the trap. It was a bright orange sunflower sea star with 19 arms and we weren’t sure what to do.
We both were flummoxed for a moment. We knew sea stars are harmless to people, but this 19-armed creature looked like it evolved to be a warning to humans, like a brightly colored spider or snake. Some scientists now believe that our reaction to spiders and snakes is innate and not learned. Perhaps, somewhere in the backs of our minds, an ancient voice was telling us that the bright orange creature in our trap could be dangerous.
In reality, we humans are far more dangerous to it.
Sea stars on the pacific coast of the US have had it rough recently. Starting in 2013, over 90% of them died due to sea star wasting disease. No one is certain what caused it, but many think the culprit was a sudden change in ocean temperatures. Sea stars that used to be incredibly common in our area simply vanished over a few years. Since then, the ocean ecology seems to have been out of balance.
From this article.
The widespread collapse of sea stars, a top predator and keystone species, has had dire consequences for many of the West Coast’s marine ecosystems. For example, the local extinction of sunflower sea stars, which can live for up to 65 years, has led to an explosion of their primary prey, the Pacific purple sea urchin. On a single reef in Oregon, the population of these animals increased 10,000-fold between 2014 and 2019, to more than 350 million individuals.
Sunflower sea stars, like the one we had in the trap, were recently certified as critically endangered by the IUCN.
I was aware of their plight and we brainstormed how to get the sea star out of the trap unharmed and back into the water without touching it. But first, I needed to take some photos. With that out of the way, we dipped the trap back in the water and turned it on its side, and with a little shake, it fell out gently and drifted back down to the shadowy depths.
My first thought was our friends on the island who work for a non-profit organization funded by UC Davis called SeaDoc Society. Their work focuses on ocean science and the rehabilitation of the Salish Sea and its inhabitants. I looked forward to sharing what I thought was a good sign for sea star recovery. I put the photo on Instagram first.
A week or so passed and an idea struck. I enjoy browsing Reddit and occasionally post photos. One of the communities that seemed perfect and has over 19 million members is called, “Mildly Interesting“. I thought the sea star fit that description, so I shared the photo on Reddit with a short note about it being endangered. This is where things started to hit high gear.
Reddit is designed to be a democratic system. Once something new is posted, the members of the community can each give it one vote: up or down. When something gets traction, the upvotes outnumber the downs, and the post has the potential to ascend to the top of the community page and possibly reach the front page of Reddit itself.
When I went to bed that night, it was obvious the photo struck a chord. It had thousands of upvotes, with new votes coming by the second. I couldn’t wait to check my phone in the morning to see what developed as I slept.
To my surprise, the post received over 30k upvotes overnight and reached the Reddit front page at position #10. I was so excited and read almost every comment, including 100+ versions of the question, “how did it taste?” Such is Reddit.
That day, I received a succinct message from someone who asked if I was interested in licensing the photo to news organizations. I agreed. He sent over an agreement and questionnaire that gave me a chance to tell the story. I was careful to promote the photo as possible evidence of a sea star comeback and its connection to ocean ecology.
These kinds of relationships are unpredictable. I figured there was no harm in licensing the photo and I might earn a few bucks. More than anything, I expected nothing to happen.
A few days later, a friend on the island shared a link that was a surprise. Fox News had picked up the story and used the photo on their website along with quotes from me, the “fisherman”. I found it hilarious.
Then, the article also appeared on the New York Post website.
Messages poured in from friends and family calling me, “The Fisherman”. If only they knew that Sachi is the real fisher in the family. One of my favorite parts of the article is this quote at the end:
“LeFever did not immediately respond to Fox News’ request for comment.”
At a personal level, this was a fun and exciting event to watch unfold. But it’s also a reminder about how little this kind of media exposure matters. It had nearly zero impact on my career or livelihood. I did earn a $75 licensing fee for the photo, which is nice.
The real outcome, I hope, is building awareness about the sea stars of the Salish Sea and sea star wasting disease. Every person who learns about it is one more potential advocate for taking care of the ocean.
According to Reddit, my post has been viewed over 3 million times and shared over 1,000 times in the past two weeks. The Fox news article has been widely viewed and shared as well. It was not my intention, but I count the few minutes it took to share the photo as a small part I could play in helping the sea stars get more attention and hopefully rebound.
Since that first catch, we’ve seen three more sunflower sea stars in our traps, so there is growing evidence, at least from our boat, that they are coming back. Here is one escaping just as we pulled up the trap: