A sea star succumbing to sea star wasting syndrome. Its center is dissolving into goo, and marine worms are beginning to attack it. Photo: Don Noveillo

By Elizabeth Weise
28 December 2013

(USATODAY) – Something is killing starfish up and down the West Coast and no one knows what.

A mysterious illness that first appeared in June in Washington state has now spread from Sitka, Alaska, to San Diego. Starfish first waste away and then "turn into goo," divers say. Whatever is causing it can spread with astonishing speed — a healthy group of starfish can die in just 24 hours.

"It's widespread, it's very virulent and it's unlike anything we've seen in the past," said Pete Raimondi, a marine ecologist at the University of California-Santa Cruz who is one of the lead researchers in an international effort to track the outbreak.

The ailment seems to hit starfish the hardest, with smaller numbers of sea urchins and sea cucumbers reported falling to it. No one knows what percentage of the West Coast's starfish are affected but in some areas they've been wiped out.

So far at least 12 different starfish species are known to be at risk, Raimondi said.

Marine biologists call starfish "sea stars" because they are not actually fish, but invertebrates. They've dubbed the ailment "sea star wasting syndrome."

The first case was reported in a tide pool in Washington state's Olympic National Park in June. Within weeks sea stars in the Vancouver Aquarium in British Columbia were dying, and sea stars near Sitka, Alaska, also began to fall ill.

The animals first "look a little bit odd," said Mike Murray, director of veterinary services at the Monterey Bay Aquarium in Monterey, Calif. "Their arms may be twisted or weirdly positioned."

They then develop what look like tiny wounds on their surface and bits of whitish discoloration. Within days and sometimes hours, the animal begins to waste away and fall apart. "It's almost like they're melting," he says. "They turn into slime or goo, they just kind of disintegrate."

Scientists are asking recreational divers to report outbreaks. Don Noviello is a member of the Kelp Krawlers Dive Club in Olympia Wash. He and a dive partner saw their first infected sea stars on Dec. 21.

"It's like they become zombies of the sea," Noviello said. "I saw a leg walking away by itself," he said. [more]

The starfish are dying, and no one knows why


  1. rpauli said...

    Obviously this is Black Swan event number 101...  

  2. Anonymous said...

    Would be nice if vacation communities such as Dillon Beach in California posted signs to prevent tourist from harvesting the sea stars for their child's science project.....the local residents can only do so much.....they need help to stop the pillage so the sea stars have a chance to repopulate......any suggestions save the dastardly tourista shakedown takedown would be greatly appreciated....this comment has been brought to you by a concerned Dillon Beach resident  


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