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What Is Killing 11 Species of Sea Stars from California to Alaska?

© 2013 by Linda Moulton Howe

 

“When you hear about 100% mortality (in 11 sea star species),
it strikes me as odd because once the pathogens have gone into their
host and the host dies, then they have nowhere to go and they die themselves. ”

- Ian Hewson, Ph.D., Asst. Prof. of Microbiology, Cornell Univ., Ithaca, NY

 

December 20, 2013 Vancouver, B. C., Canada, and Ithaca, New York - In August this year, divers in Howe Sound northwest of Vancouver, British Columbia, in Canada, began seeing sick and dead sea stars. Strangely, the arms of the marine creatures appeared to be “melting off,” as divers put it.

[ Editor's Note: Sea stars - popularly called “star fish,” but are not fish, are echinoderms belonging to the class Asteroidea. About 1,500 living species of starfish occur on the seabed in all the world's oceans, from the tropics to subzero polar waters. They are found from the intertidal zonedown to abyssal depths, 6,000 meters (20,000 ft) below the surface. They have complex life cycles and can reproduce both sexually and asexually. Most can regenerate damaged parts or lost arms and they can shed arms as a means of defence. They are voracious predators of muscles and other organisms, even other sea stars. Then the notorious crown-of-thorns throughout the Indo-Pacific region eats valuable coral. Sea stars date back to the Ordovicianaround 450 million years ago, but there aren't many fossils because sea stars tend to disintegrate after death.]

This summer, Howe Sound had become so full of sunflower stars in the subtidal zone that divers counted a dozen sunflowers per square meter!  Scientists did not understand how or why such high densities had developed. But when the melting syndrome began suddenly in Howe Sound, Defence Island, Indian Arm and Puget Sound, divers estimated at least 50% of all of them died quickly.


Howe Sound and Defence Island underlined in pink north of Vancouver.
Indian Arm underlined in pink to the east of Vancouver.

Then by October, the Seattle Aquarium in Puget Sound, the Vancouver Aquarium and the California Science Center in Santa Cruz told investigating scientists that 100% of their sea stars were melting away and dying inside their protective tanks. These were sea stars that had no contact with the masses of wild sea stars in the ocean. So what would cause 100% mortality in aquariums? One fact is that the aquariums pump unfiltered Pacific Ocean sea water into the tanks.


Puget Sound near Seattle (bottom red circle) to Vancouver and Howe Sound
(upper left red circle) have had severe sea star die-offs with the bizarre “melting”
syndrome and the Seattle Aquarium, Vancouver Aquarium and other sites have had
100% sea star mortality in their enclosed tanks, implying the contaminant is in the
Pacific Ocean water that is piped into the aquarium tanks.

As the summer temperatures cooled with the fall, the mortality rate in eleven species of sea stars increased. That meant water temperature was not a factor. Neither did radioactivity seem to be a problem from the damaged Fukushima nuclear power plants in Japan. The Washington State Health Department and other agencies tested West Coast fish and have so far not found elevated radiation levels. Further if Strontium-90 and Cesium-137 contamination was a factor, many other marine creatures would be dying, not only sea stars.

Researchers at the University of Rhode Island have also reported that sea stars have been dying in a similar melting way from New Jersey to Maine. Scientists are puzzled by the suddenness of the die-offs and the virulence of the attacker on so many different sea star species.

One of the divers in Howe Sound, Indian Arm and Puget Sound is videographer and naturalist Neil McDaniel, 64-years-old, and a  resident of Vancouver, Canada. He has been diving for nearly 45 years and was shocked by the sea star devastation he has seen with his own eyes.


Indian Arm east of Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada.


Interviews:


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Neil McDaniel, 64, Videographer and Naturalist, Vancouver, B. C., Canada: “In August of this year, divers began reporting very alarming things going on in Howe Sound, which is a large fjord near Vancouver. They saw many, many sunflower stars, which is a very large species of sea star. They found these animals what they called ‘melting’ and the animals were kind of falling apart. Their bodies were getting very soft and thinned out. Their arms were falling off and eventually they would die and just fall to the bottom and become puddles of goo, as they described it. There was a huge die-off happening.


Sunflower sea star, Pycnopodia helianthoides.
Image by Brewbooks/photopin cc.

In Howe Sound alone, I would estimate tens of thousands of sunflower stars died in less than a month. In the first dive that I saw the wasting disease occurring was in Defence Islands, which is a small group of islands in the northern part of Howe Sound. This is this large fjord very near Vancouver.

My dive buddy and I went there. We had heard about this wasting disease happening and we jumped in the water, swam down into 20 feet deep or so and started looking at the sunflower stars there. Sure enough, we found an awful lot of them were looking sick. Personally, I've never seen anything like this in our waters. As I said, I've been diving since 1969 and I've never seen anything like this before. This outbreak of whatever it is, the virulence of this disease is incredible!


Sea stars “melting,” falling apart and dying in Howe Sound
northwest of Vancouver, B. C., Canada. All along the Pacific
coast ongoing in December 2013, from Santa Cruz to as far north as Alaska,
more species of sea stars are disintegrating and dying than ever seen before
and no one knows the exact cause. Similar sea star “melting” has
also been found on Rhode Island and Maine coasts.
Image © 2013 by Neil McDaniel.

For example, there is a dive site near Vancouver in a place called Indian Arm. We dove there on October 9, 2013. There were thousands of sunflower stars on the reefs there and we started seeing the beginning of the disease. There were quite a few animals that were sick and dying - probably about 50% were affected.

We went back on October 29th, twenty days later, and there had been 100% mortality of sunflower stars.

ONE HUNDRED PERCENT?

Everyone of them was dead. That was just absolutely shocking. If I hadn't dived there twenty days previously, I wouldn't have known what had happened. I mean, it was just extraordinary to see this major sea star, a large carnivorous predator taken right out of the whole picture. Gone! And other species were affected as well. The mottled sea star. The morning sun star and several other species also had been getting this wasting syndrome. We really don't know yet what this thing is, whether it's a bacteria or virus or what?”


Mottled Sea Star 14 inches wide and can grow even larger.
Image © 2009 by Terrance Fidler.


A healthy, vibrant morning sun sea star.


A dead morning sun star among tens of thousands found dead in October 2013,
from a wasting disease that “melted” the sea stars in Howe Sound, Indian Arm,
Defence Island, other regions near Vancouver, B. C., Canada and Puget Sound north of Seattle.
The die-off extends south to Santa Cruz, California, and north up to parts of the Alaska coast.
A similar melting syndrome is also killing sea stars on the East Coast from New Jersey to
Rhode Island and Maine. Image courtesy Jonathan Martin.

Donna Gibbs, a research diver and taxonomist working for the Vancouver Aquarium's Howe Sound Research and Conservation group told The Commonsense Canadian in October, “They’re gone. It’s amazing! Whatever hit them, it was like wildfire and just wiped them out.”

One scientist who is trying to find an answer to what is killing off so many sea stars is microbiologist Ian Hewson, Ph.D., and Assistant Professor of Microbiology at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York. Prof. Hewson was raised in the outback of Australia, but came to the United States to earn his Ph.D. in biological oceanography at the University of Southern California in 2005. He is trying to find out if there is a biological organism attacking the sea stars. He confirmed the sea star melting syndrome is now ongoing from Southern California to parts of Alaska in at least eleven different species. To do that, the killing agent has to be especially virulent to cause disintegration and death in so many different species.

Adding to the mystery are melting sea stars 3,000 miles further east on the coasts of Maine and Rhode Island. To date, no scientist has been able to answer what is causing the massive dying of sea stars that have thrived in Earth's oceans for the past 450 million years.

Ian Hewson, Ph.D., Asst. Professor of Microbiology, Cornell University, Ithaca, New York: “My role is to try and diagnose if there are any distinctive viruses, bacteria, protozoans or fungi and other related organisms - whether those are associated with the disease? We do that using what we call molecular diagnostics. That means we look at the DNA of the organisms and we try to understand who they are based on comparison to the DNA of all organisms.

 

11 Sea Star Species Dying of “Melting” Syndrome
On West Coast - Fewer Species Dying On East Coast

On the West Coast, I believe we're up to about eleven different species of sea stars that appear to be affected. I think that is probably more extensive than what is happening on the East Coast.

IF ELEVEN DIFFERENT SPECIES ON THE WEST COAST ARE AFFECTED BY THIS SAME MELTING SYNDROME, WHAT DOES THAT TELL YOU AS A MICROBIOLOGIST ABOUT WHAT MIGHT BE THE NATURE OF THE ATTACKER?

Well, that's a very interesting question. Typically, when we find a pathogenic organism, it tends to be restricted to a closely related species. This is why you cannot catch a cat leukemia virus. But eleven different species of sea stars that are not altogether very closely related to each other evolutionarily suggests that it's something very broad spectrum. It gives us a little bit of evidence that perhaps the actual melting of the sea stars is being facilitated by similar types of organisms.

IS THERE INFORMATION THAT WHAT IS HAPPENING IN MAINE AND RHODE ISLAND IS IDENTICAL TO THE SYNDROME ON THE PACIFIC COAST?

There are a similar suite of symptoms of the sea stars. I believe that they are undergoing sort of a similar progression of symptoms as well. For example, the animals slow down a lot. They start to drop their arms, which is a defense reaction of stress. Then the animals dissolve into a mass of bacterial and other microbial goo on the bottom.

 

Sea Star Deaths Increasing
As Temperatures Cool

“Right now in some places in the Puget Sound, we're finding much higher disease prevalence as well as mortality of animals than we were three months ago.”

One thing I can say is that we've seen a progression of the disease on I believe the West Coast as well as the East Coast with it getting cooler. Right now in some places in the Puget Sound, we're finding much higher disease prevalence as well as mortality of animals than we were three months ago. That would seemingly suggest that it might not be temperature related, OK? Because micro-organisms have a temperature optimum. Usually bacteria will become really abundant when things are warmer. But the opposite from what we're seeing, OK? So it would suggest that whatever it is - is probably not related to temperature.

Also, we've had a lot of questions about whether it is related to radiation from Fukushima. We can't completely exclude that possibility, but at the same time when you examine sea stars on the Japanese side of the Pacific, they are not dying, as far as we know. And it's very unlikely that is the source of the (sea star melt) problem. [ Many marine creature species, not only sea stars, would be dying if radioactivity in Pacific waters. The Washington State Health Department and other agencies have tested west coast fish and not found elevated radiation levels to date.]

 

Why Is Aquarium Tank Water Killing
100% of Contained Sea Stars?

Watch this 1 minute video of aquarium sea star losing arms.

Aquariums - they are also experiencing sea star mortality - the Seattle Aquarium, the Vancouver Aquarium, the California Science Center. They could probably treat their sea stars if it turns out to be the case (it's bacteria) with an antibiotic, which would prevent animals from dying.

WHY WOULD SEA STARS IN ENCLOSED AQUARIUMS BE DYING OF THE SAME MELTING DISEASE AS THE WILD ANIMALS IN THE BOTTOM OF THE OCEANS?

Well, they actually take in seawater for all of those aquariums from the environment. They typically have a pipe, which is out in Puget Sound, for example, at the Seattle Aquarium. They draw water in. It doesn't go through much filtration, but the animals are experiencing in situ (ocean water) conditions.

SO IF YOU FIND THROUGH DNA SEQUENCING AN ORGANISM THAT IS A BACTERIUM THAT MIGHT BE RESPONSIBLE FOR THE TWO COASTS AND THIS MELTING DISEASE, AT LEAST THE AQUARIUMS COULD ADD SOME SORT OF ANTIBIOTIC TO THE WATER THAT MIGHT RESTORE THE MELTING AWAY SEA STARS IN THE AQUARIUMS?

That is possible, yes. They could probably treat their sea stars with an antibiotic, which would prevent the animals from dying.

ARE THE AQUARIUMS WORRIED THAT ALL THE SEA STARS ARE GOING TO DIE OFF FOR A LONG TIME?

Certainly, it has been dramatic in the aquariums that we have been working with. They have euthanized many sea stars from their collection that are sick and dying and it's spreading. So in some tanks, for example, I know there have been 100% of sea stars die.

THE AQUARIUMS LOST 100% OF THE SEA STARS?

Yeah, 100% of the sea stars died in certain aquariums, mainly because they are probably in a contained environment because they (aquariums) are worried about whatever is causing this disease to other animals within their collections.

100% MORTALITY GIVES SORT OF A SHOCK.

Absolutely, yes! Can you imagine if all the humans in one particular area died because of a pathogen. It is certainly unusual for pathogens to wipe out 100% of their population.

IF THESE ARE SEA STARS IN AQUARIUMS SEPARATED FROM THESE CONGESTED POPULATIONS ON THE BOTTOM OF THE OCEANS, ISN'T THERE SOMETHING IN THE OCEAN WATER ITSELF THAT'S BEING PIPED INTO AQUARIUMS THAT IS CAUSING THE SAME MELTING DISEASE IN THE SEA STARS INSIDE OF TANKS?

Yes, they have not been in direct contact with animals that are free roaming in the environment, so it's true that it's probably something in the water. Something in the water could be either chemical, it could be combined chemical and biological, could be any type of micro-organism and it could also be (bits of) dead and dying sea stars that are making it into the pipes of the aquarium.

WELL, ARE YOU SURPRISED AT THE 100% DEATH RATE IN AQUARIUMS ON THE WEST COAST?

I'm very surprised when I hear about 100% death rates of any organism when you are talking about a disease. It is not in Nature, for example, for a pathogen to wipe out your entire host population. You (attacker) has to have something to survive in. Pathogens don't live out in the environment very long and so you have to have a sustainable, viable population to perpetuate it. When you hear about 100% mortality (in 11 sea star species), it strikes me as odd because once the pathogens have gone into their host and the host dies, then they have nowhere to go and they die themselves. The only situations where you hear of Nature with 100% mortality in an entire population is when you do have these clonal (cloned) situations where you have all of the hosts are all identical genetically. And that's probably the case with some of the sea star populations up in the Pacific Northwest where you've got exactly the same organism, the same sort of spawning event as a result of them all being very genetically close.

IF THERE WAS 100% DIE OFF IN MOST OF THE SEA STARS ON THE PACIFIC COAST, WHAT WOULD THAT SAY TO YOU?

If that does happen that 100% of all the sea stars went away, it would definitely be a disastrous sort of event for the inner tidal zones, for example. You would have a large number of muscles and other organisms that would prevent algae from colonizing surfaces. The ecosystem would be in trouble, OK? But it's not going to be 100%! (laughs)”

In January 2014, Prof. Newsom hopes to have some microbiology evidence to report about what is causing the sea stars to melt away. Earthfiles will update that news when it's available.

 

Vancouver Aquarium staff are asking divers and other members of the public to help monitor the spread of the melting syndrome and to report any similar sun star deaths to: http://www.vanaqua.org


More Information:

For further information about marine die-offs, please see reports below in the Earthfiles Archive.

• 05/24/2012 — More Than 1,000 Dolphins Dead in Northern Peru Since January - Acoustic Trauma? Biotoxins? Natural Causes?
• 04/18/2012 — Part 1: Gulf Fishermen Finding Sick Fish, Few Crabs and Shrimp
• 02/24/2012 — 179 Healthy Common Dolphins Have Stranded in Cape Cod Since January 12, 108 Have Died and Cause Still Unknown
• 08/31/2011 — Part 2: NEXUS Conference Speaker's Passport and Visa Confiscated
• 05/27/2011 — Unprecedented Die-Off of Leopard Sharks in Redwood City, Calif. Bay Area
• 05/26/2011 — Part 1: Gulf Fishermen Finding Sick Fish, Few Crabs and Shrimp
• 03/30/2011 — Corexit and Crude Oil Still in Gulf A Year After BP Disaster; Marine Life Dead and Some People Sick
• 02/23/2011 — Part 1: BP Oil and Corexit Dispersant Still In Gulf of Mexico.
• 01/31/2011 — 2010 - 2011 Extreme Weather
• 01/28/2011 — New Year 2011 - Bird, Fish, Penguin, Crab Deaths and More Corkscrew-Sliced Seals on North Norfolk, England Coast
• 01/06/2011 — Updated: New Year Deaths of Birds, Fish and Crabs Around the World
• 11/30/2010 — Part 2: Naples, Florida Fire Chief Watched Lights of Unknown Origin
• 06/23/2010 — Snakes Are Declining Around the World, But Why?
• 02/25/2010 — Lionfish Invaders Are Eating Up Other Marine Life in Florida Keys, Bahamas and Bermuda
• 11/20/2009 — Red List of Earth Life Facing Extinction Keeps Growing
• 10/06/2009 — Cosmic Rays Reaching Earth At Highest Level in 50 Years
• 03/06/2009 — Unexplained Stranding of 200 Pilot Whales and Dolphins
• 03/06/2009 — Unexplained Stranding of 200 Pilot Whales and Dolphins
• 02/05/2008 — Federal Court Rejects Bush Navy Sonar Exemption
• 02/20/2006 — Mysterious Deaths of Whales in Mexico
• 06/25/2005 — "Junk DNA" That's Not Junk
• 05/20/2005 — May 2005 Crop Formation Update in Six Countries
• 08/03/2004 — Crop Formations: Fifteen in Southern England Since July 20, 2004.
• 08/01/2003 — Field Notes About English Animal Mutilations
• 09/02/2002 — Blue Lights and Helicopters in Wiltshire's East Field
• 05/04/1999 — Mysterious Deaths of Harbor Porpoises on East Coast


Websites:

Vancouver Aquarium Video: "Melting" sea star losing legs in aquarium tank:
http://www.aquablog.ca/2013/11/video-shows-early-clinical-signs-of-diseased-sea-stars/

Sea Stars of the Pacific Northwest by Neil McDaniel: http://www.SeastarsofthePacificNorthwest.info

Vancouver Aquarium:
www.aquablog.ca/2013/11/family-relations-in-starfish-wasting-syndrome/ www.aquablog.ca/2013/09/starfish-epidemic-in-howe-sound /

University of California at Santa Cruz: www.seastarwasting.org/

http://www.eeb.ucsc.edu/pacificrockyintertidal/data-products/sea-star-wasting/

Sea Stars: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Starfish

Sunflower Sea Stars: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sunflower_seastar

Mottled Sea Stars: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Evasterias_troscheli

 
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