SEATTLE – A mysterious killer is wiping out sea stars along the entire West Coast of North America, with 20 species affected.
Called sea star wasting syndrome, the outbreak hitting the coast from Alaska to Mexico was first reported from Olympic National Park in Washington last summer, and has continued to take out sea stars with merciless efficiency. Entire ecosystems may reshuffle as the top predators of the near shore succumb. And as summer draws people to beaches, a beloved sea creature is dissolving before our eyes.
Katie Pyne and Haila Schultz, student researchers at the University of Puget Sound, were shocked as they surveyed sea stars at Alki beach this week.
“It’s just melting,” Pyne said of a purple sea star disintegrating before her eyes. The smell of rotting flesh filled the cove along a jetty, and sea stars dripped from the rocks, in a slow-motion fall to their deaths.
Lisa Keith of West Seattle, a volunteer beach naturalist with the Seattle Aquarium, was sickened by the devastation of the sea star communities at Constellation Beach in south Alki.
“As a beach lover, it was disturbing, everything was so gooey and drippy and falling off the rocks and turning into bacterial mats,” Keith said. “They are falling apart right in front of you, it is a little shocking.”
Affected sea stars typically first contort and twist, and white lesions appear on their bodies. Their usually firm, meaty bodies deflate and waste away. Arms fall off and walk off on their own. The animal loses its ability to hold on to rocks or pilings. Its body falls apart in pieces, and finally dissolves. Within weeks, only a ghostly white print will remain, and then nothing at all. Entire communities are wiped out, as if they never existed, notes West Seattle diver Laura James, whose underwater videos vividly document the devastation of the disease.
“It’s a complete decline of sea stars at all of our dive sites and beaches,” James said. “We got hit really hard last year starting about June. … Now it is hitting places it didn’t before, in the San Juans, and Hood Canal.”
She sees a loss not only of biodiversity, but a beloved animal. “In addition to the environmental impact, there is this human issue, which is almost more important to me,” James said. “They are that ambassador to the underwater world.”