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January 2014    Download the Entire Issue (PDF) Available to the Public Vol. 29, No. 1   RSS Feed for Undercurrent Issues
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Falling Stars: Mass Starfish Deaths on the West Coast

from the January, 2014 issue of Undercurrent   Subscribe Now

Laura James called it one of the saddest things she's ever seen underwater. Sea stars, iconic and ever present in Northwest coastal waters, were suddenly becoming sick and dying before her eyes in numbers too great to count. The long-time Puget Sound diver said she's never seen anything like this in 20 years of diving.

She had heard recent reports from the Vancouver Aquarium, where diving biologists found sunflower sea stars in Vancouver Harbour and Howe Sound dying by the thousands. James wondered how sea stars in Seattle's Elliott Bay were faring, so in November, she took her underwater camera to dive the West Seattle dive site Cove 1, where the underwater pilings are normally covered with an army of brightly colored sea stars. But now they had transformed into pale, decaying piles of mush. Stars that had not yet disintegrated appeared to be so weak, she said, that they are being torn apart by the weight of their own bodies. ( See James' before-and-after video at http://kuow.org/post/watch-underwater-video-sea-stars-dying-west-seattle ).

These mass dying events have been coined Sea Star Wasting Syndrome, and recent surveys along the West Coast have found evidence of die-offs as far north as Whittier, Alaska and as far south as Orange County in California. So far scientists have only guesses about what might be causing this underwater epidemic; perhaps a virus, bacteria or something else entirely.

The Vancouver Aquarium ( www.vanaqua.org/act/research/sea-stars ) and the University of Santa Cruz ( www.eeb.ucsc.edu/pacificrockyintertidal/data-products/sea-star-wasting/index.html#track-disease ) are asking people to report any sightings of dying sea stars. Both organizations are mapping their findings as well ( http://data.piscoweb.org/marine1/seastardisease.html ).

You don't have to be a diver to see evidence of sea stars dying. James also shot video below of dead sun stars that had washed up on shore at Brace Point in West Seattle. "I saw 100 dying sea stars in one area, and we're getting reports of it all over Puget Sound," James told Seattle radio station KUOW. "It's huge, and it's frightening because nobody knows what's going on."

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