By Ygal Kaufman
A massive die-off of purple ochre sea stars (also known as starfish) has been hitting the West Coast hard for the last year. First seen in June 2013, a mysterious and deadly disease has been ripping through starfish populations, with a 95% mortality rate for fish stricken with the disease that causes them to waste away. Oregon had previously been thought to be mostly avoiding the epidemic, but now OSU researchers are saying it has arrived on our beaches.
It’s so bad that scientists are now warning that ochre sea stars will become extinct in Oregon, and that this could have serious repercussions for our greater marine ecosystem. The starfish is considered a keystone predator, and their absence will cause mussels and other shellfish populations (which they prey on) to explode without them there to thin the herd.
Overall, 10 species of the beautiful and popularly misunderstood creature are being affected by the disease. Scientists scrambling for an answer have blamed it on a variety of factors, including warming waters and acidification caused by climate change, though thus far we still don’t know for sure what is causing it.
Most puzzling was why it had previously been affecting other regions on the coast but not Oregon. That part of the riddle is still unclear, but what is clear is that it has arrived on our beaches, and we have no time to lose.
OSU and other universities on the West Coast including UC Santa Cruz, UC Santa Barbara, and Stanford University, as well as the Oregon Coast Aquarium, Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife, Oregon Coast Watch, and other groups, are collaborating to track and hopefully stop the epidemic. They point out that it’s not too late to stop the trend of starfish death, and that ecosystems can still recover from these losses. But time is running out.
People interested in volunteering or learning more about the fight to save our starfish should visit this resource website hosted by University of California Santa Cruz: www.eeb.ucsc.edu/pacificrockyintertidal/data-products/sea-star-wasting/index.html.