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What's killing West Coast starfish?

VANCOUVER (NEWS1130) – Here on the West Coast, it’s not uncommon to peer over a dock or wharf and see a starfish below. But a mystery illness is killing off marine invertebrates along our coast right from Alaska to San Diego.

Scientists are baffled–something is infecting healthy starfish in our oceans and essentially turning them into goo. One of the researchers looking into what’s happening, Dr. Pete Raimondi with the University of California, says the illness coined Wasting Disease is unlike anything seen in the past with at least 12 species of starfish now at risk.

The phenomenon first showed up in Washington State this June–and has decimated starfish, with a smaller number of sea urchins and sea cucumbers also being affected.

Researchers believe it’s some sort of bacterial infection that causes starfish to develop tiny wounds initially. Shortly after, their legs detach from the body, often walking away by themselves, and eventually the starfish itself disintegrates into a slimy goo. The whole process can often take as little as 24 hours for starfish that appear completely healthy only hours before falling ill.

In November, The Vancouver Aquarium posted a video of a sea-star at their facility believed to be suffering from the illness, losing legs over the span of seven hours. This after the Aquarium voiced their concern in October about the disease initially wiping out populations in the Defence Islands and off the south shore of Bowen Island.

While there have been smaller scale starfish die-offs in the past, what’s troubling researchers is so many species over a much wider area than seen previously are being affected. They’re not sure what’s causing the deadly bacteria, and say it could be anything from toxins to warming oceans.

Researchers are now mapping the outbreaks, adding starfish are an integral part of the sea environments they live in, feeding on mussels, barnacles and sea snails. If they completely die off, researchers warn the ecology of our oceans could change significantly.