The washed up starfish in Kent

What caused tens of thousands of dead starfish to wash up on a Kent beach?

Thousands of sea creatures blanketed the beach in Ramsgate on England's south coast in one of the biggest mass strandings on record in the UK.

They appeared on 3 March, after Britain spent a week enduring freezing temperatures and stormy weather.

Starfish covered most of the beach, but other marine life was washed up as well, including fish and sea urchins.

The trail reportedly stretched from Ramsgate to other beaches in the area, including Broadstairs, and it is thought that the challenging weather conditions were the cause.

Frank Leppard, a local photographer who took the above image, said he had 'never seen so much dead sea life in one spot'.

The Marine Conservation Society also reported that hundreds of lobsters, clams, bryozoans, anemones and starfish have been washed up on a beach in East Yorkshire.

Andrew Cabrinovic, the Museum's curator of echinoderms, looks after its collection of starfish specimens.

He says, 'Starfish strandings such as this one are not unusual, and occur to a greater or lesser degree every year. However, strandings on this scale do not happen often.'

Andrew added that stormy weather is the most likely explanation, as water currents become stronger and wash the starfish to the shore. Starfish live on the soft, sandy parts of the ocean floor, and are easily picked up by currents and waves.

Heavy storms can cause even deep water to move and affect offshore starfish populations. Changing tides, high winds and sea swell could also be factors in how many end up on beaches. 

The beach at Kent under a blanket of sea animals. Image by Frank Leppard Photography

The beach at Kent under a blanket of sea animals. Image by Frank Leppard Photography

 

A normal phenomenon

Although it's an upsetting sight, the stranding is a not a cause for huge concern.

Common starfish (Asterias rubens) are found on all British and Irish coasts. They also reproduce quickly.

Mass stranding of thousands of common starfish have been reported often along the coast of England, and other species have been known to strand on the east coast of North America.

Dr Chris Mah, a starfish researcher from the Smithsonian Institution, agrees with Andrew.

On his website, he says, 'In almost every instance that this has been reported, there have been reports of either storms or high winds. 

'Bear in mind that storms don't just mean high winds and rough water current. It also means fresh water input. Echinoderms are notoriously intolerant of freshwater. Low salinity water might serve to weaken or otherwise just disable enough of them to be washed ashore.'

Dr Mah adds that starfish populations will usually bounce back.

He writes, 'Although it seems like hundreds to thousands of individuals, bear in mind that many of these species occur over a huge area and their spawn includes hundreds of millions of individuals.'

The Marine Conservation Society added, 'We regularly see mass strandings of seabed-dwelling animals after storms, usually in winter, sometimes several times in a year.

'This year, the “Beast from the East” combined with heavy seas stirred up by [Storm] Emma appears to be one of the biggest mass strandings on record for the UK.'

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