B.C. starfish are dissolving into goo

B.C. starfish are dissolving into goo, and no one knows why

Scientists are baffled: “We have no clue what’s causing this,” says one marine biologist


Photograph by Christopher Harley

From Alaska to Mexico—and all along the B.C. coast—an iconic animal is disappearing. For reasons that remain baffling to scientists, starfish are dying by the millions, in the grips of a mysterious wasting disease that dissolves their bodies into goo. “I’d do beach walks along a 50-m stretch of shoreline, and count 500 or 1,000 of them,” says Chris Harley, a marine ecologist at the University of British Columbia who’s been monitoring sea stars (as scientists call them) for nearly two decades at sites around Vancouver, West Vancouver and White Rock. Revisiting one of these sites recently, he found a single sea star.

The Vancouver Aquarium, which has been tracking the outbreak of sea-star wasting syndrome, warns that the B.C. creatures are experiencing a “mass mortality event,” with some species like the big sunflower stars (which Harley calls “glorious things the size of manhole covers”) particularly affected. On June 4, an Oregon State University (OSU) team warned of an “epidemic of historic magnitude” that threatens to wipe out the state’s entire population of purple ochre sea stars: in the intertidal zone, which is covered by water at high tide and uncovered at low, between 30 to 50 per cent of the species has the disease. “We have no clue what’s causing this,” admitted OSU marine biologist Bruce Menge, not to mention how long it will go on. Sick sea stars appear deflated, like they’re “rotting away,” says Pete Raimondi of the University of California at Santa Cruz. “They start to curl up, and then jettison their arms,” Harley explains. “The arms crawl away from the body.” Depending on the hardiness of the species, the star can last up to a few weeks, or die within a day or two. Raimondi says some sea stars simply rot in place, leaving a ghostly imprint built out of bacteria and nothing more. “It’s very creepy looking.”

This epidemic of sea-star wasting syndrome caught scientists’ attention last spring, with massive die-offs reported near Vancouver and Seattle. Sea-star wasting events have been reported in the past, says Raimondi, but nothing like this. The last two big wasting incidents, in 1983-84 and 1997-98, were during El Niño years, when ocean waters were particularly warm. “Wasting is often an attribute of warm water,” which can compromise a sea star’s delicate skin, he explains. “This time, it wasn’t associated with El Niño, and we first saw it north, in Canada and Washington. Then it started spreading south.” Early in the outbreak, a dive team from the Seattle Aquarium was sent under a nearby pier to collect samples. “When they first went down, they saw a small proportion of the sea stars were diseased and dying,” says aquarium veterinarian Lesanna Lahner. Two weeks later, more were affected. “A week later, all the sea stars were dead.”

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Everything from Fukushima radiation to pollution has been blamed for the deaths. Scientists are beginning to unravel the cause, which seems to be bacterial, viral, or possibly both. “We think it’s a two-step process,” Raimondi says: an initial attack from a bacteria or virus that suppresses the animal’s immune system, and then a secondary infection that takes hold. The role of climate change, if any, isn’t yet clear, he adds; nor do scientists know for sure whether the pathogen is native to the West Coast or an exotic invader.

According to Lahner, a team at Cornell University (which collaborates with the aquarium) is cataloguing bacteria and viruses from sick and healthy sea stars. “We’ve never even looked at what bacteria and viruses are normal in sea stars,” she says, partly because these animals aren’t “of commercial importance.” Even so, sea stars are often called a keystone predator, one that holds their surrounding ecosystem together: they feed on mussels, and without them, mussels would crowd out other species. “Sea stars are the lions of the Serengeti,” Harley says. “If you take them out, it completely changes what the ecosystem looks like.”

With the sea-star epidemic expected to worsen, at least in the short term, scientists can’t work fast enough to understand the mysterious wasting disease. “This is one of the largest wildlife die-offs that we know of,” Lahner says. “It’s a signal in the ecosystem that something’s not right.”

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B.C. starfish are dissolving into goo, and no one knows why

  1. Given just how horrifically we’ve been abusing the oceans for centuries, this shouldn’t be surprising. When the green crowd gets bored with global warming – I mean climate change, maybe this is an issue they should take up. Habitat destruction on a massive scale is a far greater threat to the globe than a slight change in average global temperatures.

    • Where do you get “habitat destruction” from anything in this article?

      • The ocean is a habitat. In fact, the world’s largest habitat. And we’re slowly destroying it.

        When a habitat no longer supports the life it once did (for example, when an entire range of species like starfish suddenly start dissolving into goo) that is habitat destruction.

        • There is no suggestion in the article that the starfish are dying because the habitat can’t support them.

          • They’re dying. En masse. Dissolving in fact. Nope. No issues with their habitat at all. Can’t understand for the life of me where I got that silly idea.

          • Dunno. Your imagination?
            Starfish dying of wasting syndrome is no more evidence that their “habitat no longer supports” them, than people dying of plagues is evidence of humans’ habitat no longer supporting humans.

          • There’s no evidence this is caused by climate change either, but that won’t stop numerous “scientists” from jumping to that conclusion.

          • Ah. You were just making it up.
            Which you believe is OK because someone you can’t name might do the same.

  2. Fukashima radiation? Sewage from the pacific rim?

    • All it takes is one molecule of plutonium, uranium or other such radioactive particulates and you have a massive problem for 100s of thousands of years as it doesn’t dissolve like other pollutants. And pretty hard to find one molecule…but not for adjacent cells.

      Some idiot also dumped iron dust in a maligned effort… Think is many marine life forms are NOT iron based, and may be toxic to copper based blood types. So much silliness from eco-fraud….

      But hey, recycle CO2 is is the buzz, more taxing and profitable to do CO2 than the real dangerous stuff we put in the oceans.

      • One molecule of a radioactive substance can only emit a few bits of radiation as it goes down the decay chain from one element to the next. After that has all happened, the remaining molecule is a different element, and not radioactive. So one molecule cannot do any harm to biological organisms.

        Maybe you mean “one particle” (something like a grain of sand) instead of “one molecule.”

  3. Lahner says that this die-off isn’t associated with an El Nino, but it isn’t clear from her comment whether it’s associated with warmer sea temperatures.
    Sea surface temperatures have indeed been anomalously warm in the Pacific Northwest – particularly last summer and this spring, with temperatures up to 3C above long term average.

  4. Granted, this is a biological/travesty, and there’s defdinitely something going on,…, that not even our gov’t could be bothered to look at:

    So, if only I could change the Articles title from “B.C. starfish are” to “Harper is”,
    but then again, none of this would actually be “news” then would it?

    • Government is about revenue, not intelligence. Only reason we are concerned about CO2 is its a statism tax greedy’s ideal tax and decieve methods. CO2 is rather tame given plants can use it without harm.

      Never seen any life do well with the nasty radiative particulates and dissolved plastics.

    • The experts think it might have something to do with an “explosion in the numbers of starfish.” because this isn’t a new phenomenon (see the source article provided below).

  5. We have dumped radioactivity, iron oxides, various other pollutions…. many are copper based not iron based lifeforms….enough plastics to build a large modern city….estrogens, drugs, bio mater pollutants….

    And maybe we just are not looking as to why because we don’t want to see the truths. Rather push the carbon thing for taxes……and carbon is recyclable, plants love it.

    • You keep writing that CO2 is harmless on a global scale. How can you feel so certain about that?
      Do you work as a scientist, an engineer or a climatologist?
      Do you somehow posses other special, rare knowledge?
      At least you could cite some sources for your pronouncements.

      • Ralph,

        CO2 is not only harmless….it is essential to life on the planet. The CO2 in the atmosphere was far higher millenia ago, and it corresponded to some of the most diverse life forms on the planet. Lots of CO2…lots of life. that’s the way it has always been.

        You don’t have to be a scientist, engineer, or climatoligist to know that lots of CO2 means lots of plants. Lots of plants means lots of food for creatures that eat plants. Lots of creatures that eat plants, means lots of creatures that eat creatures that eat plants.

        the sources for the pronouncements are all around you……they are called trees, bushes, grass, etc..etc..

        Think critically Ralph…..don’t buy into the crap just because the person who’s spouting off has a PHD. They mean nothing.

        • “….don’t buy into the crap just because the person who’s spouting off has a PHD. They mean nothing.”

          Sadly, if “Richard J. Halifax” is a spoof of “James R. Halifax” it’s impossible to tell.
          Let’s just hope he’s not performing surgery on his children

    • Well, carbon is making lots of Jellyfish in the sea, you just need to know how to (harvest, ship, and) palate it. Carbon sequestration (not quite fracking) is getting into swing (rather behind solar and wind) and indeed there will be more things separated for profit as this goes on. Looking forward to your photo spread on what plants ‘love’ CO2. First sources 4eva!

  6. Uh, get your head out of you know where. Fukushima baby.

  7. Well, considering the starfish were fine prior to Fukushima…I wonder what could ‘possibly’ be causing the die-off.

    • According to experts this phenomenon existed prior to the radiation. Since there has been an “explosion” in the number of starfish the phenomenon has returned.

    • you will note in the article that this is not a one-off. It has happened before, and I suspect they are on the right track about some type of pathogen causing it.

  8. “No commercially viable” until their food source, mussels, overpopulate due to lack of predation and crowd out things we want to eat, or perhaps have a massive die-off when their food is gone, then rot by the billions and pollute the whole coastal zone.

    Its astounding that commercial interests continue to focus on species instead of ecosystems.

  9. The same thing is happening on the East coast of the USA as well. Radiation weakens the immune system and multiplies the effect of all pathogens and dangerous heavy metals.
    Where is the mystery? Must be the same mystery that keeps members of congress signing on for GMO.

  10. Fukushima was first thought – we’ll know once all the West Coast surfers start turning into goo as well.

  11. Yes I would say its a two step process. Step one…get radiated, step two… die. They don’t know which radiological particle is responsible but I bet something from Fukushima is killing them

  12. Puts me in mind of “bee colony collapse.” There might be several factors at work rather than just one..perhaps some change in the habitat has made the starfish vulnerable to a new type of virus.

  13. It’s very easy for me to take these creatures for granted in Vancouver. They’ve populated the sea wall like cattle on the hillside; an ahhhh and smile sufficient in their acknowledgement. I wonder how I would have reacted differently now knowing how fragile and beautiful they are…

    • They’re evidently vulnerable to something, based on this population decline. However, “fragile” is not a term I’d usually associate with starfish. They’re about as close to indestructible as a seal creature can get. Rip an arm off, and it regenerates. Rip it into pieces, and as long as part of the crown is attached to an arm, it’ll grow into a new starfish. On top of that, they’ll attack and eat anything they can catch. The fact that some pathogen is attacking something so resilient is what I find creepy.

  14. Glyphosate –> Monsanto. Marine Scientists, test for it.

  15. I would hope that these scientist don’t restrict their investigation to just the starfish.

    They need to look at what the starfish are eating, as any bacteria may be coming from the food source.

    • If only those scientists knew as much about biology as R J Halifax.
      You should really get in contact with them to make sure they have it covered.

      • Lenny,

        Although I studied biology extensively in school, you do not need to be a biologist to use common sense. If you eat something that is carrying a pathogen….chances are, you will end up with it in your system as well.

        pretty basic really.

        • Still don’t get why your comment was so funny, do you?

          • I don’t concern myself with your sense of humour, Lenny.

            I’m sure, that under the thin metal hat you use to keep the radio waves out of your head……you are sure you know what you are talking about.

  16. The government funded research project to study the effects of pollution on marine life in the Pacific Ocean was cancelled last year by Stephen “What you don’t know, can’t hurt you.” Harper. Ir was, in fact, the only federally funded research programme of its kind in all three of our oceans.

    • yes, budster…it’s all Harper fault.

      Every night, he takes a black helicopter to the West Coast and focuses those striking blue eyes on the starfish and liquifies them with his focused intesity.

      His eyes are actually lasers….and he hates starfish. (Maybe he heard they were going to start a union)

      • You could actually be right for the first time, Richard.

  17. Well, Scientists are often looking too narrowly..so it may be (obvious) that there are “Canaries in the Coal Mine”. How many pollutants, etc. run into and are dumped in our oceans? Starfish are pretty simple..and therefore their immunity is being shot to hell. We are a destructive bunch..but also amazing and beautifully creative. I hope there’s hope.

    • Kaitlyn wrote:
      “I hope there’s hope.”

      Kaitlyn, while I admire the sentiment behind this, you do realize that hope provides NOTHING without action. It won’t be hope that solves this, or understands what is going on, it will be hard work followed by the appropriate actions.

      But to contradict what I just wrote….me too. I hope they find out what is going on.

  18. I love starfish!

  19. After the Chernobyl nuclear accident the EU financed R&D on products that would decrease the radiation levels in the human body. Vitapect, a form of concentrated apple pectin, was developed and researched on 160,000 Europeans. In peer-reviewed journals, Vitapect is shown to reduce 62.6% of the radiation in the body. http://www.vitapect.org