9/19/2014

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What's causing our sea stars to waste away?

SEATTLE - The video is eerie - like something from a creepy horror film - and Joe Gaydos can't help but feel a sense of sadness as he watches a sea star literally waste away.

"It's quite morbid to watch this thing scurry around and have an arm fall off and another arm fall off and the legs shrivel up," said Gaydos, director of the SeaDoc Society, a science and marine conversation program at the U.C. Davis School of Veterinary Medicine.

Through a one-minute time lapse, you watch as a sea star, known as a sunflower star, moves through a tank at the Vancouver Aquarium, losing leg after leg until it ultimately dies. The video was shot over a seven-hour period, and according to local scientists, what you see in the video is very similar to what they've seen happening to entire populations of sunflower stars in waterways along British Columbia and the West Coast.

"Divers ran into it doing a regular survey looking at rockfish," said Jeff Marliave, vice president of marine science at the Vancouver Aquarium. They took photos of all these rotting and dying sea stars…It was really in your face."

Divers in Vancouver first noticed the diseased sea stars on Sept. 3, and Marliave said within a week they checked sites where they knew there was an overabundance of sunflower stars and they were already all gone.

"That's how fast it can it go from first collapse and wasting to everything is just in a pile," Marliave said. "That's the stuff that is really, really upsetting."

Just as marine scientists with the Vancouver Aquarium started monitoring and collecting samples of the diseased sea star found in their local waterways, the Seattle Aquarium started doing its own surveys in Elliot Bay.

"It started showing in late October," said Dr. Lesanna Lahner, the veterinarian for the Seattle Aquarium. "We are seeing the same species affected as they are up north."

Since first noticing signs of the wasting disease among the local sunflower star population, Lahner said divers have been making weekly trips along the waterfront and note lot has changed within just a few weeks.

"(On Wednesday) the team did not see any live sunflowers along the waterfront," she said. "During other trips there were some -- some sick, some healthy -- but now it's worse than before."

Just like crews in Vancouver, divers and scientists have been collecting samples in the Puget Sound and monitoring the sunflower stars in the Aquarium and those that appear to show signs of disease have been quarantined.

"We have definitely seen sea star disease over the last few decades, but it's been on much smaller scales," Lahner said. "We are very concerned."

And, so is Laura James. A local diver, underwater photographer and marine enthusiast, James said she's noticed a similar phenomenon in sea stars off West Seattle.

"Their bodies have melted away, just blobs of decaying starfish and random legs strewn about," she said.

James said she didn't take any photos at the time, but she's planning to go out this weekend to see what she finds. James is also searching for answers for what she saw along the shoreline off Brace Point.

"All the sea stars are still right there - more than 100 of them," she said.

Last weekend, James took video showing dozens of dead sea stars all along the beach. She said some of the stars legs seemed short, like they may have melted off. She sent the images to an expert friend at the Seattle Aquarium to get his take.

"He thought there was way too many for that be caused by storm damage," she said.

Lahner said it is hard to know for sure if what happened to the sea stars in James' video is related to the wasting disease affecting the sunflower species.

Both the Seattle Aquarium and Vancouver Aquarium are working with scientists around the country to try and find an answer for what's killing so many sea stars. Researchers and scientists with the SeaDoc Society have also gotten involved, conducting research in the Puget Sound around the San Juan Islands.

"SeaDoc did 120 dives in the Sound (in one week), and we saw six different species of stars with disease," Gaydos said. "We've been sending samples to the same labs."

Lahner said she is planning a dive with Gaydos and his team next weekend to take a look at the sea star population there. All of the samples being collected from the Puget Sound and Elliott Bay have been sent to Cornell University and labs in New York.

"Only when we start to figure out the cause can we start to figure out if it's related," Gaydos said.

Test results from the samples sent from Vancouver, Seattle and the San Juans could take weeks if not longer to get back. Those results will be the only way to determine if the incidents with sea stars in the wild and the aquariums are indeed related.

"Often times wildlife disease outbreaks take time to figure out what caused it," Lahner said. "It's a very complex mystery."

In the meantime, anyone who comes across dead sea stars and suspects wasting disease is encouraged to report it to the Vancouver Aquarium. They have set up a website where people can post submissions online.

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