Victor Gabrenas
Sea stars are dying of some sort of 'wasting disease' in local waters.

Where Have All the Starfish Gone?

By Tim Clifford

For a few months now local divers have been seeing a disturbing sight below the surface: starfish wasting away and dying in mass numbers at local dive sites.

Described as a “wasting disease” the afflicted starfish, of which it now seems to be most adults up and down the west coast, will literally start wasting away from the inside out. “Sometimes you find just their arms, sometimes still in the shape of a sea star, other times you simply find a whitish disc of gelatinous goo” explained local dive instructor James Winger of what he had seen at dive sites Cove 1 and Cove 2 off of Alki Beach. “Around Thanksgiving we saw that it had spread to Redondo [Beach in Des Moines]” continued Winger.

Little is known about this syndrome (the preferred term according to researchers) but all evidence has shown that it is exclusive to adult starfish. The sunflower star fish were seemingly the first to be hit by this “mortality event” and other star fish in the same “family” have also been struck. The syndrome has also hit the morning sun star, a predator to the sunflower star, and seems to have been communicated through the eating of diseased star fish.

The Seattle Aquarium has been working in conjunction with many other aquariums around the nation to figure out the exact nature and origin of this wasting syndrome. Speaking with Donna Gibbs of the Vancouver Aquarium in B.C. she explained “the vets at the Vancouver Aquarium are working with vets at other aquariums including Seattle. Samples have been sent to Cornell University for analysis”.
One theory that has been thrown out about this syndrome is that it may well be a form of population control from “Mother Nature”. It had been noted for years that these starfish were over populating. Gibbs explained “it might be something natural that took off fast like wildfire because of the overabundance of the species. The adults are completely gone in the Howe Sound Area”.

The data that is being collected has been coming mostly from those in the diving community. Gibbs says of the local diving community’s contribution to the research “the diving community has been extremely helpful and generous with data and feedback”. Especially helpful is video and photographs from divers that clearly show the devastation of the syndrome.

Watching how currently unaffected young star fish do over the months is important to understanding the true nature of this syndrome. “We are seeing babies of the species and we’re watching them closely to see if they get to adulthood” says Gibbs.

When speaking to diver Victor Gabrenas, who came from Utah to dive sites off of Alki with his wife, he said “most of the larger starfish were wasted or rotted into a pile of tissue. Very Sad! The smaller starfish appeared to be healthy at both sites [the Alki Beach Junk Pile and Three Tree Point in Burien]”.