A trip to the coast usually means you’re going to see sea stars, but a mysterious disease is killing them along the West Coast. There had been a few reports of sick sea stars in Alaska, but recently in Sitka, the first mass die offs in the state were detected. Scientists in Sitka are tracking the progress.
Patty Dick lives on a boat in Thompson Harbor in Sitka. In the morning, when it’s low tide and she has an extra moment, she goes out and checks on the sea stars living in the area.
“I just sit there in awe of the beauty of that animal,” she said. “Everybody loves sea stars.”
Dick teaches 6th grade biology at Blatchley Middle School. She often takes her students on field trips to learn about marine animals, and they usually find dozens of sea stars.
But one morning last month, Dick noticed something was wrong with the sea stars. “I just looked over and I just stopped. There were these big, huge, white spots all over them and they were just wasting away. My heart just sank.”
She’d heard about this happening, but she hadn’t seen it with her own eyes. “I’m trying to find one star fish that is not affected,” she said, “and they were all dead. They were all dead.”
They had sea star wasting disease. All along the West Coast, sea stars have been dying of this disease. The first case was discovered in the summer of 2013 on the Olympic Peninsula and scientists still don’t know what’s causing it.
Taylor White is the aquarium manager at the Sitka Sound Science Center. For the past year, she’s been working with a team that is monitoring sea stars and other marine life in Sitka and along the West Coast.
“You really do look a lot harder at sea stars now that sea star wasting disease is occurring. I feel like a lot of people are paying a lot more attention now.”
“It’s a lot of just crouching down and going from the top left corner and going through the entire plot, moving this rockweed around, and counting as any starfish as you see,” White said.
She takes me for a walk along the beach to see for myself. She pulls up a rock and is looking at some six-legged sea stars called leptasterias. We’re looking at sea stars on Sage Beach, next to the science center.
The Sitka Sound Science Center is part of a project called MARINe, which stands for Multi-Agency Rocky Intertidal Network. MARINe is made up of agencies that use the same marine monitoring methods. They’ve set up about 120 sites along the coast in the U.S., from Southern California to Alaska. There are three sites in Sitka – the only long-term MARINe sites in Alaska. White helps monitor the Sitka sites as part of her job at the science center.
“You really do look a lot harder at sea stars now that sea star wasting disease is occurring,” she said. “I feel like a lot of people are paying a lot more attention now.”
Once sea star wasting hits an area, it can quickly spread through the population. Research divers from the University of Alaska, Sitka, have surveyed different areas in Sitka Sound and have seen evidence of wasting in most locations. At Sage Beach, divers found that in the past few weeks, sunflower stars have disappeared, leaving behind white ‘ghost piles’ of tissue.
While there have been minor wasting events in the past, this event is by far the longest and most widespread.
White says she’s seeing the same thing happen in the touch tanks at the Sitka Sound Science Center. “A lot of those guys have been in there for a very long time. It was hard to see it suddenly hit.”
They use an open system, so sea stars live in water straight from the ocean. She describes what she saw when the disease hit. “They just started crawling away from their bodies,” she said. “They contort themselves. Then they just started to decay since there are so many bacteria in the water. They just kind of break down after that point.”
When sea stars are sick, they can lose a leg and then regrow a healthy one. But with the wasting disease, they just keep losing legs, sometimes until only a central disk is left. The aquarium has had 35 sea stars die within three weeks, and now, only two remain in the touch tanks.
Scientists know there will be substantial impacts from these mass deaths, but they aren’t sure what yet.
Marnie Chapman, a biology professor at the University of Alaska, Sitka, has been working with White in the longterm monitoring project. She says sea stars play a big role in the ecosystem.
“They are major predators in the intertidal,” she said. “They’re definitely the lions and tigers of the intertidal environment.”
And they’re diverse. There are about 1900 species of sea stars in the world, and at least 18 in Sitka alone. “Sea stars are as unique and as individual than those predators that we’re more familiar with,” said Chapman.
There are several groups trying to figure out what’s causing this mass die off. It could be a bacterium, a virus, or environmental change, like lower pH levels in the ocean or warmer water. Most scientists think it’s a combination of things.
“They just started crawling away from their bodies. They contort themselves. Then they just started to decay since there are so many bacteria in the water. They just kind of break down after that point.”
When scientists do figure it out, there’s not much that can be done. If it’s a pathogen, there won’t be a sea star vaccine. If it’s warmer water, that’s irreversible.
Chapman worries about the future of the species. She recalls a day when she was out counting dying sea stars and a boy was looking at healthy ones nearby. “This young kiddo was saying, ‘mom, look at all the sea stars,’ and there were a lot of really healthy, unaffected on the side they were looking on,” she said, “and I thought, ‘boy, I hope that still happens. I hope that still happens next summer.’”
But there is some hope. At some of the MARINe sites along the coast, they’re seeing some juvenile sea stars. So, they could make a comeback. In time, we’ll know better.
And there is something that everyone can do to help track the disease. If you see sick or healthy sea stars, report it to seastarwasting…org. Reports from the public help scientists better understand the disease and could help solve this mystery.
A puzzling “wasting disease” first observed along the west coast of the United States in June 2013 continues to kill millions of starfish. The gruesome disease causes the creatures to rot–and to rip their own limbs off. As one biology professor told PBS Newshour, two infected starfish he was observing “started ripping themselves apart. The arms just crawl away from the particular body.”
Laura James, a diver and videographer from Seattle, Wash., and one of the first to notice starfish with the disease, described a recent dive to Newshour. “There were just bodies everywhere,” James said. “And they were just like splats. To me, it always looked like somebody had taken a laser gun and just zapped them and they just vaporized….We have had now occasional die-offs here and there, but it’s not like this. It’s not a mass mortality event.”
Biologists aren’t sure what is causing the mysterious disease, which has now affected 12 starfish species. Pete Raimondi of the University of California, Santa Cruz, said he believes the starfish wasting disease is likely caused by a pathogen in the form of a parasite, virus or bacteria. One theory about the source of such a pathogen is that it came from the ballast water of foreign ships, as the disease has largely appeared along major shipping routes.
Other theories for the cause of the starfish die-off include ocean acidification, warming ocean water making starfish more susceptible to infection and even radiation from the 2011 Fukushima power plant disaster.
While the starfish wasting disease cause remains mysterious, one thing is quite clear: the disease is unbelievably deadly. With a mortality rate of 95 percent, the disease has completely killed off entire starfish populations in Puget Sound, off the coast of Washington, and in coastal areas along California.
Starfish are a keystone species, eating everything from mussels to clams to crab (and even other starfish). Because they eat so voraciously, starfish have a major impact on ocean ecosystems. Subsequently, when millions of starfish are wiped out, it can have a major effect.
“These are ecologically important species,” said Drew Harvell, a marine epidemiologist at Cornell University. “To remove them changes the entire dynamics of the marine ecosystem. When you lose this many sea stars it will certainly change the seascape underneath our waters.”
Our coastline is losing sea stars by the millions due to what is suspected to be a deadly virus.
The mysterious illness has the potential to wipe out all the sea stars along the west coast of North America, said Paula Romagosa, a marine biologist and curator at the Shaw Ocean Discovery Centre in Sidney, B.C.
“Events like this have happened before but on a much smaller scale. We’ve never seen one of this magnitude.”
The die-off of sea stars was first detected in August in small pockets in Howe Sound, off West Vancouver and in Indian Arm.
Since then, the extensive die-off has been reported along the shoreline from Alaska to California.
Laurie Corbeil of Nanaimo noticed something was happening in the ocean close to her home near the Nanaimo Yacht Club.
“I’ve been watching the starfish and a large sea star for a week or two,” she said in an email. “I notice that these are losing their limbs and turning to white goo.”
She went down to the beach at low tide and couldn’t find any sea stars — “only white blotches where they used to be.”
Different species are being hit in different areas. From here to Alaska, it’s the sun star that is dying off. They are reddish on top, covered with brushlike spines and have eight to 14 arms.
From Victoria south to California, the five-armed, purple starfish is mostly affected.
The loss of the species is troubling because sea stars are omnivores and will eat anything, including smaller sea stars.
“Everything in the food chain below them is going to be affected — all the bivalves,” Romagosa said.
“There could potentially be an overpopulation of those species, and overpopulation usually leads to mass mortality from bacterial infections.
“Nature has control,” Romagosa said.
The virus has not yet been identified, but it’s under study at Vancouver Aquarium and some California universities.
“We’re diving as much as possible, trying to document it,” Romagosa said.
Adults are affected more than juveniles, “but in general, it’s affecting everyone,” she said.
Some populations are completely wiped out, including one near the Seattle Aquarium.
“You can see where the sea stars have died and there’s nothing left,” Romagosa said.
It could take decades for the species to recover, Romagosa said.
“It all depends if it continues on, if the populations are completely wiped out, or if the juveniles manage to get past it,” she said.
The virus affects the animals in different ways. A sea star at the Shaw Ocean Discovery Centre showed it was unwell by developing a bald spot.
“It just remained a bald spot for a few weeks,” she said. “There were no changes to behaviour, no change in eating habits. Then, all of a sudden, it turned into several bald spots.”
The sea star was removed from ocean water and placed in quarantine.
“Within five days or so, the sea star got really, really skinny. You could see the webbing between the legs. Then it couldn’t hold onto the walls anymore.”
Others look completely healthy except for their guts coming out in strings.
There is speculation that the die-off could be due to water-borne radiation originating from the Fukushima nuclear plant.
Romagosa said that doesn’t sound likely because the first place it was seen was in a remote area of Indian Arm and not the west coast.
“It could be chemicals that are released into the water from pulp mills or factories. The most possible option is a viral infection.”
There’s little marine biologists can do besides let the die-off run its course, she said. “There’s no way of stopping it that we’ve found so far.”
Scientists don’t need dissection to know that a sea star die-off is going on, in both Canada and the United States, but facts are a bit hard to come by, and they’re not sure what’s going to happen down the line.
The creatures are melting into “goo” in waters from New Jersey to Maine on the East Coast, and off the coast of Washington, California, Alaska, and Vancouver on the West Coast.
Marta Gomez-Chiarri, a professor at the University of Rhode Island, says that the the facts point to an overdevelopment sparking a disease.
“There was a big increase in sea star numbers about three or four years ago, and often when you have a population explosion of any species you end up with a disease outbreak.,” said Gomez-Chiarri in a university press release .When there’s not enough food for them all it causes stress, and the density of animals leads to increased disease transmission.”
But the leveling out of the population appears to be going far, leaving researchers scrambling to figure out what to do.
“Now that the disease is in the environment, it may be hard to get the population back to normal,” she added. “Diseases don’t just completely disappear after a massive die-off.”
The problem is manifesting itself in a startling fashion. In some areas, such as Rhode Island, researchers are having trouble just finding enough starfish to study.
The melting problem is called the sea star wasting disease, according to the University of California, Santa Cruz. At least 10 different species of sea stars are suffering from the disease. Over a dozen different locations on the West Coast alone have had entire sea star populations wiped out.
Although overpopulation is likely the source of the problem, experts don’t have a good idea of what’s causing the disease, veterinarian Lesanna Lahner told KING5 in Seattle.
Seattle Aquarium biologists Jeff Christiansen and Joel Hollander suited up over the weekend to search the Puget Sound for both healthy and sick sea stars to try to learn more.
“There are a lot of melting seas tars out there, more than even a couple days ago” Christiansen said. “There would be a healthy animal in really close proximity to a sick animal; there was no concentration of sick ones and concentration of good ones.”
Lahner was taking the gathered creatures back to the lab to take samples.
“It’s concerning to hear in a short time period we’re seeing 60% of this species diseased in this area,” she said. Especially because everything seemed fine just a few weeks ago.
Jonathan Martin, a marine biologist and scuba enthusiast, encountered the melting sea stars firsthand when he went diving in the waters off British Columbia in Canada.
“We just started noticing dead starfish that looked like they had their arms chopped off,” Martin, who posted photos online, told National Geographic.
He began researching the problem after the dive and found other people have been seeing the same thing.
“It really struck a chord in other divers who were seeing it on Facebook and social media, both locally and as far away as California, who had been seeing similar things,” Martin said.
While Martin also believes it could be because of the sea star population explosion, he cautions people not to jump to conclusions.
“When I posted this on Facebook, some people immediately thought that this was due to global warming or other human-related activities. While that’s certainly a possibility, it’s all speculation.”
The problem is puzzling experts in Vancouver, where sea stars are suffering in the waters off Vancouver, such as the Howe Sound and Vancouver Harbor.