Starfish deaths puzzling experts

This map shows the locations on Whidbey and Camano islands where apparently diseased starfish have been discovered. Below, a provided photo of starfish by diver Jan Kocian.  - Contributed photo
This map shows the locations on Whidbey and Camano islands where apparently diseased starfish have been discovered. Below, a provided photo of starfish by diver Jan Kocian.
— image credit: Contributed photo

Starfish are among Charlie Seablom’s favorite aquatic animals to discover.

As a volunteer for the Island County Beach Watchers organization since 1993, Seablom has started to see alarming changes in his favorite sea creature.

“The ones I’m seeing, a very large percentage appear to be diseased,” Seablom said.

The pisaster sea star typically has five limbs and comes in a wide variety of colors. The orange-colored sunflower starfish grows to be far bigger, can have up to 24 legs and can “run” quite quickly.

Over the past year, a number of dying starfish were reported off the coasts of Whidbey and Camano islands.

This year is the first in which Seablom has seen any of the wasted sea stars on Whidbey.

Seablom said he’s been on the lookout since the first symptoms were reported in June 2013 by researchers from Olympic National Park. Since then, sea stars along much of the North American Pacific coast are dying in great numbers from this mysterious “star wasting” syndrome.

“It’s real sad to see animals like that die off like that,” Seablom said. “I just hope they find the cause and then maybe a cure before they’re all gone.”

Barbara Bennett, program coordinator for the Beach Watchers, said Island County monitors 30 beach locations across Whidbey and Camano islands and are seeing the sea star wasting mainly on the west coasts.

Symptoms Beach Watchers are reporting include lesions on the sea star’s skin, followed by decay of tissue that leads to its body falling apart and, ultimately, death, according to sources at the University of California Santa Cruz.

UCSC is taking the lead on sea star wasting tracking on the west coast and locals who sight starfish can report them on the UCSC’s Pacific Rocky Intertidal Monitoring web page.

A deflated appearance can precede these signs of the disease and the progression of the wasting disease can be rapid, leading to death within a few days, according to the UCSC. Researchers said they believe the phenomenon is caused by a bacteria or a virus, but testing is still incomplete.

“The scientists are really stumped,” Bennett said. “We’re hearing people say there’s piles of them. Here we’re not seeing the usual population.”

The disease interferes with their hydraulic system and, in some cases, limbs have been known to fall off and crawl away on their own, Bennett said.

“It’s kind of an alien thing.”

The disease is also highly contagious and residents are discouraged from touching or moving any of the sea stars.

Drop off in sea star populations were reported in the past, but it’s never been in such broad numbers, Bennett said.

Bennett speculated that the star wasting could be happening because other things are off balance — the temperature or chemistry of the ocean, for example. It might also be caused by pollution or climate change.

Rapid funding from Washington Sea Grant and National Science Foundation is being used to survey intertidal and near-shore areas of the coast where researchers say there is little to no information about sea star populations, according to UCSC sources.

Recently surveyed areas include Whidbey Island, the north coast of the Olympic Peninsula, from Salt Creek to Port Townsend, and the mainland coast near Bellingham.

Additional surveys are being done in the San Juan Islands.

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