Marine mystery disease along Pacific Coast baffles scientists

Friday, August 15, 2014
By Paul Martin

by: Ethan A. Huff
Friday, August 15, 2014

Sea stars up and down the Pacific Coast are dying off in record numbers, and scientists say they can’t figure out what’s going on. Reports indicate that in some areas of Washington State, for instance, upwards of 80 percent of the sea star population has vanished, while other areas are reporting strange phenomena like sea star limbs falling off and literally walking away on their own — what one marine group coordinator likened to “an alien thing.”

For the past several years, students, environmentalists, and even ordinary citizens have noticed a drastic increase in the number of gravely ill or dead sea stars littering the West Coast. One group that monitors sea life around Island County, Washington, says sea stars are increasingly succumbing to a mystery disease that some have dubbed “star wasting” syndrome that, when it runs its full course, causes sea stars to disintegrate.

“The ones I’m seeing, a very large percentage appear to be diseased,” stated Charlie Seablom, a volunteer for Island County Beach Watchers, to the Whidbey News-Times. “It’s real[ly] sad to see animals like that die off…. I just hope they find the cause and then maybe a cure before they’re all gone.”

Rayna Holtz and Yvonne Kuperberg, two Vashon Beach Naturalists, agree. They told the Vashon-Maury Island Beachcomber that they’ve been watching sea stars dwindle for quite some time. What was once one of the Puget Sound’s most plentiful and iconic sea creatures has become a diseased relic, with no end of the devastation in sight.

“I would say the disease hasn’t been abating,” Holtz, who combs the beaches in her area weekly, is quoted as saying. “It looks to me like it’s raging.”

Holtz and many others have been tracking the ups and downs of sea stars along the Washington coast, observing their visible numbers and apparent state of health. Even in areas that are relatively untouched by humans, sea stars are turning up dead or in terrible health, with their limbs falling off or disintegrating due to some unknown trigger.

Scientists claim that they don’t know what’s causing the widespread disease, attributing it to some unknown virus or pathogen that must be circulating in ocean waters. Others blame warmer-than-usual ocean temperatures that they say must be incubating the mystery disease, avoiding any talk of the role that environmental pollution and Fukushima radiation could be playing in the phenomenon.

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