Share story

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 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 brings us all out to the beach, a beloved sea creature, the first many children touch or draw, 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, I thought I would just leave the beach,” 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 at about June, and everything here got wiped out. 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.”

Cracking the mystery

Experts seeking to understand the outbreak use words not often heard from scientists: unprecedented, scary, disgusting, heart wrenching.

“This event is unprecedented, we have never seen a wasting event of this magnitude, and we really don’t know what is going to happen,” said Drew Harvell, a marine epidemiologist from Cornell University based at Friday Harbor Labs and part of a nationwide team of researchers working to crack the mystery of what’s causing the die-off. “ We don’t know the why of this event yet,” Harvell said. Is it a bacterial infection? Is it triggered by warming waters? A virus? Some combination of the three?

“I am very concerned about warming waters, we are seeing more sickness in warmer waters, and we are at record temperatures. It is a bad mix, a kind of perfect storm.”

Scientists are honing in on the culprit.

“We are making progress,” Harvell said. “We have evidence there are infectious agents involved in this, and evidence that there is temperature sensitivity, but how it fits together is still a mystery.”

Scientists are reaching out for help, asking citizens to take note of where they see dying starfish when they are out on the beaches this summer. “There is nothing we can do to stop this,” Harvell said. “But if we learn all we can from this, we may be able to spot the next thing, or identify places of resiliency to consider for future marine reserves.”

Bruce Menge, professor of marine biology at Oregon State University, Corvallis, said while Oregon was unscathed last year, sea stars are taking a beating there now, with up to 80 percent of some populations wiped out. “It is kind of a frantic time for us,” Menge said. “ Scientists love these kinds of mysteries, but it is a heart wrenching thing to see this kind of die-off.”

Keystone predators

The consequences could be far-reaching. Sea stars are keystone predators, determining the distribution and composition of the ecological community they dominate.

The sunflower star is a master of the subtidal zone. Growing as big as a garbage can lid and cruising along at three feet a minute on as many as 24 legs outfitted with 15,000 tube feet with shell-crushing suction power, it is a carnivore to be reckoned with. Snails slither for their lives, and even spiny sea urchins are demolished when Pycknopodia helanthoides goes on the hunt.

Because of their dominant role in the ecosystem, the devastation of sea star populations could lead to a reshuffling of the food web and restructuring of entire communities, in what ecologists call a “cascade effect.”

That’s already under way in the waters of Howe Sound, off Vancouver Island, notes Jeffrey Marliave, vice president of marine science at the Vancouver Aquarium. The die-off of sea stars in Howe Sound has led to an explosion of its favorite prey, green sea urchins, whose populations now are devouring seaweed that spot prawns need for nursery grounds in their first year of life.

“We are seeing zero counts of prawn,” Marliave said. “This cascade effect is bigger than the die-off, it is affecting the whole ecosystem.

“We have to be very humbled by this, there is no quick explanation to this, and there won’t be.”

Population correction

Marliave doesn’t point the finger to human causes, at least not yet. Populations of sea star were so dense he says he was not surprised to see a correction. “We went for a good decade with incredible overpopulation, the crowding was incredible,” Marliave said. “I’ll confess at first I was thinking, ‘Hallelujah, something finally is controlling them.’ But this is a little overboard, it is scary how badly things are going.”

Staff at the Seattle Aquarium were among the first to notice the die-off last fall, when even the sea stars in its tanks, which live in recirculating water from Puget Sound, started to sicken. Staff veterinarian Lesanna Lahner has been collecting samples for analysis by scientists from Cornell ever since.

“We have seen massive die-offs, pretty much 100 percent mortality under our pier, we have never seen anything at this scale. It’s unprecedented and we are very concerned, its pretty scary,” Lahner said. One bright light is the large number of young sea stars burgeoning this year. “We are hoping they will grow up and not die as soon as they get to be adults.”

Some scientists wonder if the die-off is a sign of things to come. With climate change, will a warmer ocean be a sicker one?

Carolyn Friedman, professor in the school of aquatic and fisheries sciences at the University of Washington, says while what’s killing the sea stars isn’t yet understood, with other animals, temperature has been part of the sickness equation.

Whether abalone in California or oysters on the east coast, when waters warm it stokes the metabolism of both the animals and the pathogens that sicken them, in an arms race that turns lethal for the animal. Warming of just one degree can trigger massive mortality events taking out 99 percent of the black abalone she studies in California, Friedman noted.

Yet temperature didn’t kick off the outbreak in Oregon, where Menge notes water temperatures have been normal even where sea stars are dying in droves. So whether temperature is involved in the sea stars’ plague is not yet clear.

As the outbreak rages, divers returning to local waters are often dismayed.

Jan Kocian of Freeland, 66, has made diving his hobby. The seawall full of sea stars near his home were doing OK, despite the dire reports he was hearing all around him. “Then about two months ago, the dying started in earnest,” Kocian said. “Now it is a very sad sight. You have a lot of empty areas, and here and there a hanging sunflower star, and on the sea floor, just arms by themselves. About 80 percent on my last dive were sick, and basically you will see a pile of goo. An arm here, and arm there. It hurts, because it was so beautiful before.”

Lynda V. Mapes: 206-464-2736 or