Go to just about any tidal pool along the coast in North America and you are bound to see them. They are orange or purple or red and some have five legs while others have many more. They are slow and deliberate and stick to the rocks like Velcro just below the waterline. They are starfish, or more accurately called sea stars, and they are dying.
White lesions are appearing on the surface of the sea stars, lesions which spread rapidly, followed by decay and an overall limpness as the animal loses its ability to retain water. Soon, the sea star’s body begins to disintegrate as its arms wind up, detach, and continue to crawl around for a time on their own like a possessed corpse. It all happens fast, and death occurs just a few days after the first signs of distress. Sea Stars are dying in this manner at an alarming rate, and scientists are concerned.
A Little History
It’s known as Sea Star Wasting Syndrome, and truth be told it’s nothing new. In 1972 large numbers of common starfish perished off the East Coast of the United States in similar ways. It happened again in 1978 in the Gulf of California. But in 2013, when the latest epidemic was discovered, things were different. They’re different because, unlike the previous die-offs, this one is not so localized. It is widespread, ranging from Washington’s Olympic Peninsula all the way down to the southern California coast, with some reports now coming in from the East Coast as well. It is so extensive and mysterious that scientists are scrambling to discover the culprit before all the sea stars in the ocean disappear forever. As a top predator, the implications of sea stars vanishing can be devastating to the seascape in ways that cannot be predicted.
Likely Suspects Not So Likely
Scientists are groping for a cause of the gruesome ailment. Early on, the cause was often associated with warmer than normal water temperatures, which is thought to have been the case for a major die off event in southern California in 1983-1984 and again in 1997-98. When studies have been done in the past, it was typically thought to be a bacterium or a virus. However, in this case, the final cause is not clear.
Is it pathogen from the other side of the world? Warming water due to climate change? Ocean acidification? Some even have blamed radiation from the Fukushima nuclear plant catastrophe in Japan. The problem with that theory is that sea star wasting syndrome has been detected on the East Coast as well. And in January, the Multi-Agency Rocky Intertidal Network, or MARINe, ruled that out. The agency said on its website:
“There has been substantial speculation in the media that the disease could be a result of increased radiation from the nuclear power plant disaster in Fukushima, Japan. We have no evidence to suggest that radiation is a likely culprit.”
What can you do?
Sea stars, aside from being fun to look at, are important ecologically. If they go extinct, there unquestionably will be some significant impacts on the bionetworks they live in. To unravel this mystery, biologists need the help of the general population. Crowd sourcing has become a useful tool in many ways, and this can be one of them.
If you want to get involved, it can be as easy as going to the beach with your camera. We all take pictures at the beach, so when you are there, take pictures of every sea star you encounter, especially ones that have washed up. If you dive, bring a camera and document what you see. If you are a tidepooler, do the same. Take notes and copious photos and send them to these websites: inaturalist.org and sickstarfish.com or the Pacific Rocky Intertidal Monitoring at http://data.piscoweb.org/marine1/seastardisease.html.