Tens of Thousands of Sea Creatures Wash Up on UK Shores Following Freezing Weather

Piles of starfish, crab, mussels and lobsters collected along the North Sea coast

Starfish mass stranding.jpeg
Storm Emma has caused one of the UK's largest mass strandings of sea critters along the North Sea coast. Courtesy of Yorkshire Wildlife Trust

Starting late last month, the UK has been walloped with freezing, stormy weather, suffering bouts of snow and gusting winds. Brought on by Storm Emma, the crazy conditions even caused a short-term blow to Britian's economyBut as Damian Carrington reports for The Guardian, humans weren't the only ones who suffered in the cold. The unusually frosty temperatures caused a mass die-off of ocean life; tens of thousands of starfish, crab, mussels, lobsters and other sea creatures have washed up on UK shores.

“There was a three degree drop in sea temperature last week which will have caused animals to hunker down and reduce their activity levels,” Bex Lynam, from the Yorkshire Wildlife Trust, says in a press release. “This makes them vulnerable to rough seas – they became dislodged by large waves and washed ashore when the rough weather kicked in.”

Piles of sea life have been reported in Yorkshire, Kent and Norfolk along the North Sea coast. Most of them were dead, but a few lobsters survived the ordeal.

Many photographers came to document the stunning situation. Local photographer Frank Leppard tells Katie Pavid for London’s Natural History Museum that he had “never seen so much dead sea life in one spot.” Wildlife enthusiast Lara Maiklem, who also photographed the scene, described it as being "like the armageddon, Lewis Pennock of The Independent reports.

The mass stranding was the unfortunate coincidence of high wind speeds combined with low spring tides and extreme cold temperatures, Coleen Suckling, a marine biologist at Bangor University in Wales, writes for The Conversation. Invertebrate and some fish were most affected, since dolphins and other large animals can simply swim away.

Starfish are particularly vulnerable to such events because of a behavior known as "starballing," in which the creatures curl into a ball shape. It's unclear exactly why starfish react this way, but it causes them to roll over the seabed faster and for longer distances. Because of this, starfish strandings are a common occurrence. As Suckling reports, several million starfish were found on the coast of Maryland in 1960, and nearly 50,000 on on the Irish coastline in 2009.​

Natural History Museum’s Andrew Cabrinovic, who oversees its collection of starfish specimens, tells Pavid that even though starfish strandings are not unusual, they rarely occur on this level. In fact, according to the Marine Conservation Society, this is one of the largest mass strandings on record in the UK, Pavid reports.

“We can’t prevent natural disasters like this – but we can mitigate against declining marine life and the problems that humans cause," says Lissa Batey, senior living seas officer at the Wildlife Trusts, in a statement.​ She encourages the protection of more regions of the ocean to foster healthy populations of marine life so they can withstand future disasters.

Holderness Inshore, one of the areas off the coast affected by the mass strandings, is already designated as a Marine Conservation Zone, which protects marine wildlife and habitats. According to the Yorkshire Wildlife Trust, the government could announce more later this year. But as Carrington notes, of the 127 proposed sites in 2011, only 50 have been designated so far.

Cabrinovic tells Pavid that the mass stranding of starfish, at least, isn’t a concern for the species. The common starfish is found widely on coasts and can reproduce quickly, so they’re likely to bounce back.

As for the lobsters that survived, the Yorkshire Wildlife Trust is working with local fishermen to save them, holding the creatures in tanks until the weather improves and they can be returned to the sea.

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