Sea Star Wasting Disease

A STARtling Disease: Sea Star Wasting Syndrome

Posted on: November 29, 2013

There has been a growing amount of media attention focused on Sea Star Wasting Syndrome lately, so we thought we’d use our Flog as an opportunity to fill you in on some basics and give you an update from the aquarium. Spoiler alert: the news isn’t great…and there’s talk of ‘goo’.

So maybe it would be best to start by describing what’s been happening to local sea stars over the last couple of months…and perhaps it would ALSO be a good idea to compare it to something familiar, like the blockbuster movie ‘Outbreak’ (starring the one and only Dustin Hoffman). Basically, a disease of unknown origin has been ravaging various populations of sea stars in marine waters all along the Western coast of North America. But instead of a mouthy little monkey biting humans (as is the case in ‘Outbreak’), it is still not known how or why this disease is spreading, short of the fact that it’s being carried through the water. Also unlike ‘Outbreak’ (hmmm, maybe this situation isn’t as similar to the movie as originally thought…well, close enough), we don’t have a crack team of government officials working around the clock to find out why it’s moving so fast and what can be done to stop it, which is too bad because that would be really helpful.

Now, this is not the first time that researchers have seen Sea Star Wasting Syndrome, as there have been reports in the past that have come in from various parts of the world. What IS different this time is that it has never before affected this many stars in so many regions at the same time. Or moved so fast. Or not been attributed to a probable cause. Or been compared so poorly to the movie ‘Outbreak’.

Some of the first reports indicating that the Salish Sea was being affected by this illness were cropping up in late September, one of which came from Neil McDaniel (for all intents and purposes, Dustin Hoffman), an avid diver, sea star expert, and marine life photographer. He and a colleague were diving near Howe Sound and spotted a mass of sick stars disintegrating, dying, or already dead. The photos snapped by Neil (see below) during this dive tell the story of a fast moving decay; an illness that wastes no time in destroying an infected creature. The transformation from a regular, healthy star gripping onto a rock and mowing down on a mussel buffet to disintegrating into nothingness can happen within weeks. The animals are essentially turned into what has been described by observers as “goo”. Some stars have even been photographed with their normally internal gonads inverted and exposed outside of their bodies before they weaken and then die…um, there’s nothing worse than having your innards going outerds, am I right?

Sunflower stars illness3 credit Neiil McDaniel

Sunflower stars illness2 credit Neil McDaniel

Now for more not-so-good-actually-really-rather-bad news, reports from California, Alaska, and other areas in between are each noting a different type of star that is being most affected (in our region, it’s primarily the large and in-charge Sunflower Stars that are dying). If the syndrome is affecting different stars in different areas, it could mean a significant shift in the ocean’s ecosystem will occur as other species will move in on the star turf and/or the populations of their usual meal critters will explode as there will be fewer stars eating them. The effects of this could be felt all the way up the food chain. Is it OK to start panicking now, or should we wait for the David Suzuki Foundation to release a statement? What do you think, Dustin? Dustin?!

So now we’ve established that this is a widespread, unidentified disease that is affecting a variety of types of sea stars in mass quantities all along the west coast, and there is currently no known cause or cure…AND that Dustin Hoffman is nowhere to be found. And in still-bad-getting-worse news, since this disease appears to be using the ocean water as a medium to spread (think ‘waterborne’ instead of ‘airborne’), the problem is no longer “out there” for us here at the aquarium (and many other aquariums along the coast)…it’s now “in here”. Our primary water circulation system draws straight from the ocean, which means we have no way to stop the pathogen from entering our exhibits and affecting our resident sunflower stars. In fact, one of our sunflower stars has been deemed “wasted”, and not in a fun university student kind of way. The only consolation to this fact is that our Curator and her team of Aquarists noticed the illness early and were able to monitor the progression (photos below) in the hopes that this information will be valuable to future research.

Seastar Wasting Syndrome in the SODC 2013

So let’s be honest…reports of this nature are ‘scary’ (very scientific term, I know), but it is important not to panic just yet. NO…scratch that. One should never ‘panic’ It’s bad for your skin. No, better to be concerned, and even better-er to have that concern drive you to action. We can’t just sit around and wait for D.Hoff to come save the day… Here’s an example of what the aquarium is doing to help: When early reports came in that the disease had hit areas close to Vancouver Island, the Shaw Ocean Discovery Centre’s Dive Team sprang into action. Working with people from Rockfish Divers and the Vancouver Aquarium, our divers began a project to monitor the stars around the Saanich Peninsula. The idea is to keep an eye on things and send any data collected to the proper authorities and/or groups doing research on the Syndrome (including a prominent university in California and the Vancouver Aquarium). The more divers who are out looking for the disease, taking photos, and reporting their findings, the better chance researchers have at figuring out the cause of the disease.

Now you may be wondering: What can I do to help? Well, for all of you non-divers out there, the next time you’re on the beach or out boating and notice a sea star looking sickly, thin, disintegrating, and/or taking on a “goo”-like quality, please take a photo of it if you can (do NOT touch it!), note its location, and report it to the Shaw Ocean Discovery Centre (info@oceandiscovery.ca). Also, if you’re a fisherman or have marine equipment of another kind that you think may have come into contact with a “wasted” star (not Lindsay Lohan…the other kind), it would also be a good idea to disinfect said equipment if possible.

While it is clear that this disease is wreaking havoc on star populations up and down the Western Coast, it is important that people do NOT panic (remember what we talked about? Bad for skin, etc.) and remember that the best thing to do is be an informed citizen. With the dedication and team work of local divers, marine scientists, and other interested parties (Dustin Hoffman? Come on!), our hope is that a root cause to THIS outbreak (not to be confused with THE ‘Outbreak’) of Sea Star Wasting Syndrome will be determined and that action can be taken to prevent this mass die off from continuing.