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Solving the Mystery of Dying Starfish on America's West Coast

January 20, 2014

Starfish are dying by the tens of thousand up and down North America’s Pacific shores and nobody knows why. KCTS 9’s Katie Campbell has been following the researchers and citizen scientists on the frontlines of this mysterious epidemic. They’re trying to figure out what’s causing starfish, also known as sea stars, to die in a particularly gruesome way -- their arms crawl away and detach from their bodies.

Katie Campbell: Something strange is happening in Seattle’s waters. Laura James was one of the first to notice. She alerted scientists when starfish began washing up on the shores near her home.

Laura James (diver/videographer): And I thought, you know what? This is getting a little too close for comfort. I need go see what’s going on and I need to document it.

Katie Campbell: As a diver and underwater videographer, James was equipped to do something. She decided to take her camera to a spot popular among both divers and starfish. These pilings are usually covered with a rainbow of starfish. On a recent dive, James discovered a scene from a horror film.

Laura James: There were bodies everywhere. And they were just like splats. To me, it always looked like somebody had taken a laser gun and just zapped them and they just vaporized.

Katie Campbell: Starfish, also known as sea stars, are wasting away by the tens of thousands, not just in Puget Sound, but up and down North America’s Pacific Coast. And nobody knows why.

Laura James: I've been diving out here for almost 24 years, and people always ask me, do you see any big difference between now and when you started?

And I have seen some subtle differences, but this is the change of my lifetime. We've had small occasional die-offs here and there, but it’s not like this. It’s not a mass mortality event.

I’m just a diver. I need to find out what the scientists know.

Katie Campbell: But scientists have also been wondering what’s going on. They first started noticing sick and dying starfish on Washington’s Olympic Peninsula last summer.

Reports have since surfaced from Southern California to as far north as Alaska. At first, only a certain species known as the sunflower star seemed to be affected. Then it hit another species, then another. In all, about a dozen species of sea stars are dying along the West Coast. It’s been coined sea star wasting syndrome, and it’s also been reported at sites along the East Coast.

But researchers say it’s too early to connect these outbreaks.

Ben Miner (Biology Professor, Western Washington University): You know, I was surprised, too, that the crabs weren’t just…

Katie Campbell: Ben Miner is a biology professor at Western Washington University. He studies how environmental changes affect marine life.

Today, his team is collecting sea stars at Mukilteo, Washington, just north of Seattle.

Ben Miner: The population of sea stars is — they were quite abundant at that site. And so on the pilings, there were healthy sea stars, but we were also coming across arms and piles of deteriorated sea stars and individuals that were twisted.

Katie Campbell: The divers are searching for stars showing symptoms, as well as the ones that appear healthy.

Ben Miner: The experiments are infectiousness experiments, where we take individuals that have signs of the syndrome and we put them in tanks with individuals that don’t have signs.

Katie Campbell: Then they closely watch the progress of the disease. First, the stars twist their arms into knots, and sometimes lesions form on their skin.

Ben Miner: One of them was very sick, and the other two individuals started ripping themselves apart. The arms just crawl away from the particular body.

Katie Campbell: You heard that right. The arms crawl in opposite directions, until they tear away from the body and their insides spill out. And unlike most starfish, the arms don’t regenerate. Stars that came in with symptoms died within 24 hours.

Ben Miner: Interestingly, though, I didn’t see the individuals that were exposed to those dying individuals show symptoms any more rapidly than individuals in the other tanks.

Katie Campbell: So being in the same tank with a dying starfish doesn’t seem to accelerate the disease.

Divers recently returned to Mukilteo to find that most of the starfish there have died. But we still don’t know how they’re catching the illness or where it comes from. Could an infectious pathogen from the other side of the world have hitched a ride on oceangoing ships? Or could it be something larger, like climate change or ocean acidification?

Drew Harvell (Cornell University: So, this is a healthy Pycnopodia, no signs of lesions.

Katie Campbell: Drew Harvell is coordinating the research into answering those questions. She’s a marine epidemiologist from Cornell University who is studying at the University of Washington’s Friday Harbor Labs in the San Juan Island.

Harvell is sending these samples to Cornell. There, they will be analyzed for viruses, as well as bacteria and other protozoa. The first step, she says, is to figure out the distinct characteristics that identify the disease.

Drew Harvell: We know organisms get sick, they get bacteria, they get viruses, just like humans do. They get the cold and the sniffles, but it’s a lot harder to see it happening when they’re under the ocean.

Katie Campbell: Scientists worry that the loss of sea stars could have far-reaching ecological consequences. That’s because they’re voracious predators. They gobble up mussels, clams, sea cucumbers, and even other starfish.

Drew Harvell: Because these are ecologically important species. When you lose this many sea stars, it will certainly change the seascape.

Ben Miner: It certainly suggests that those ecosystems are not healthy. To have diseases that can affect that many species, that widespread is, I think, just scary.d

Katie Campbell: If there’s a silver lining, it may be studying this outbreak could shed light on how marine diseases spread.

That’s a question Laura James is hoping citizen scientists can help answer.

Laura James: The big problem we had here is that we didn’t have a baseline. The starfish got sick when we noticed. Wouldn’t it be cool if we could show this in real time and show the spread and the changes in real time?

Katie Campbell: James and her dive buddy built a Web site for tracking posts to social media sites with the hashtag sickstarfish.

Laura James: Take a picture of any starfish you find when you’re out tide pooling or just walking on the beach, and hashtag it sickstarfish. And then we can look at it when it pops up on the map, or if we’re not sure, we can send it off to the scientists, and they can take a look at it.

We may not be able to stop it, and we may not be able to fix it, but we need to be aware, so that we can recognize it when it happens again.

Katie Campbell: All this research may be paying off. Scientists think they’re honing in on the cause and hope to make an announcement in a few months.



Made possible in part by

Katie Campbell

Katie Campbell was the senior managing editor for video at Cascade Public Media and a founding reporter of the public media reporting partnership EarthFix. She covered environmental issues of the Pacific Northwest for more than six years, earning numerous regional and national journalism awards including eight regional Emmy Awards for reporting, photography and editing, a 2017 Edward R. Murrow Award for Excellence in Innovation and the 2015 international Kavli Science Journalism Gold Award from the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

Katie currently works as a video journalist for the investigative journalism nonprofit organization ProPublica in New York City.

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