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Climate: Lobster Shell Disease, Sea Star Epidemic Caused By Warming Waters, Cornell Researchers Confirm

Feb 17, 2016 08:14 PM EST

Lobsters in some areas of North America have experienced since the 1990s something called "epizootic shell disease," which makes their shells unsightly and difficult to sell.  The condition has devastated lobster fisheries in southern New England, and now the Maine lobster industry may be at risk, too. A new Cornell University study conducted in 2015 suggests that warming ocean temperatures are largely responsible for this epidemic.

Cornell researchers have published two studies detailing how diverse marine organisms -- corals, turtles, lobsters, bivalves, starfish and eelgrasses, for example -- are susceptible to diseases made worse by warming oceans, according to a news release.

The first study warns that warming seas may increase levels of epizootic shell disease in American lobster in the northern Gulf of Maine in 2016. As a result, researchers have developed models that will help better assess species at risk.  

"We can say when these organisms are going to be at risk of disease outbreaks based on temperature projections," Drew Harvell, Cornell professor of ecology and evolutionary biology and a co-author of the first study, said in the release.

To better monitor levels of shell disease levels this spring, researchers are teaming up with local scientists who will remain on the look-out for lobsters with deep, dark-colored shell lesions -- the leading symptom of epizootic shell disease.

"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 explained in Cornell's release.

The second study provides groundbreaking evidence linking increasing temperatures to the sea star wasting disease plaguing the U.S. West Coast.

"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," Harvell, a senior author of the second study, said, adding that while there is no cure for the disease, "not moving stars around is a key recommendation."

Researchers confirmed their findings in a series of lab experiments, from which they found sea stars died faster from the wasting disease when in warmer waters, rather than cooler.

"Future work should investigate whether survivors may have some natural resistance to the disease that might be exploited," Harvell concluded.

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

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