Followup: Sea stars (starfish) still dying, still mysteriously

From the water and from the beach, West Seattle environmental advocate “Diver Laura” James has continued to help document the mystery ailment that’s killing off so many sea stars (as updated here three weeks ago). Tonight, she’s been out diving east of Seacrest as part of a weekly check (added 1:53 am, here’s the new video):

Cove 1 Sick Sea Star survey 12-15-2013 from Laura James on Vimeo.

Two weeks earlier, that same check yielded this video:

Sick Starfish Survey, 12-1-2013 Cove 1 from Laura James on Vimeo.

Before tonight’s dive, Laura sent this report on a shore investigation from Saturday night:

We got out last night with Professor Drew Harvell (from Cornell) to take a walk down at Seacrest. We walked from Cove 2 to Cove 1 on the lower low tide in the intertidal zone and counted sick and healthy sea stars. We counted about 170 stars (both the purple and orange ones) and saw a disease rate of around 50%. This is better than what we are seeing subtidal at the same sites, which is showing 90% + mortality, like at the pilings in the video.

The Professor was very excited because it showed a difference between intertidal and subtidal, and also that it is not hard for beach walkers/tidepool visitors to find the Sea Stars, but also reasonably easy to identify one that is ‘sick/dying’.

We are going to try to make the same walk a few more times during the next series of low tides and hopefully get another count and see how the numbers compare.

A regional map is in the works, as the sea-star deaths are being tracked – see it here. If you would like to help contribute, read on for Laura’s explanation of how you can do that:

if you happen to scuba dive at a site, or are walking on the beach at a low tide and encounter a sick or dead sea star that looks like it has the melting or wasting disease, we are working on a simplest of hashtag driven crowdsourcing that can then be passed on to the scientists and help them follow what beaches/sites are impacted in almost realtime.

Take a picture of the beach (on the walk or after the dive) with Instagram and #sickstarfish #deadstarfish (or both) if ALL the stars are normal at the site #nosickstarfish (please make sure geotagging is on and you upload from at or near the site – not from home)

You can put other comments in the comment field (what type of starfish, how many, etc..) just make sure to use the #sickstarfish hashtag.

This is not just for the West Coast of the US, keep an eye out everywhere, as divers we will be the first who will notice if this makes the jump to another far away geographic location.

In the case that you don’t have a smartphone, find someone on the boat or beach that does have one and ask them to take a surface shot and upload it with #sickstarfish. We are still working on data mining from Twitter and Facebook. Right now it works with Instagram. …

This is NOT meant as a replacement for the surveys that Vancouver Aquarium and California Universities are doing, this is just a quick simple way to collect complementary data from folks who may not choose to use the web sites. All the data we collect will be available for the researchers upon request. Crowdsourcing for Science type projects works best if things are kept simple.

Although this won’t solve the problem, this will hopefully allow the rest of us (the citizen scientists) help out with documentation.

18 Replies to "Followup: Sea stars (starfish) still dying, still mysteriously"

  • ScubaFrog December 15, 2013 (9:48 pm)

    So sad. I’m not sure if it’s related in any capacity – but the shellfish on the west coast appear to have high levels of toxins (including but not limited to, arsenic).

    The pathogen that’s killing the starfish (likely either bacteria or a virus) has yet to be identified.

    I wonder if scientists have ruled out Fukushima?

  • lk December 15, 2013 (10:41 pm)

    Those white piles of sea star goo make my stomach sink. It is just so wrong to see pilings with hardly a star in sight–Heartbreaking. Thank you, Laura, for your advocacy. Curious to see what the super low tides at the end of the month reveal. Has anyone noticed any upswell in species normally predated by sea stars, or is it still to early to tell?

  • datamuse December 15, 2013 (11:11 pm)

    If it were Fukushima sea stars would not be the only life affected.

  • diverlaura December 16, 2013 (12:04 am)

    lk – we are seeing a lot of shrimp, but they eat the same things (clean up patrol) as Sea Stars, and they are opportunists. I am not yet seeing anything like a boom of Mussels or anything that is recognizable as a biodiversity shift, but i’m not a marine biologist so can’t speak for the scientists :)

    You can go out and see the stars on any of the reasonably low tides. Last night we walked between cove 2 and cove 1 over at seacrest down along the waters edge (easier to find them by Cove 1 – closer to saltys than marination) but you’ll see lots of evidence in the intertidal zone. Our Lower Lows are often later in the evening so bring your rubber boots and a headlamp.

  • Bus rider December 16, 2013 (9:05 am)

    This is happening up and down the west coast alaska to calif. Very scary and hope the scientists figure it out but would not be surprised if it was due to human causes

  • Fishb0y December 16, 2013 (2:39 pm)

    If it were Fukushima, wouldn’t Japan be uninhabitable?

  • Yorik December 16, 2013 (4:20 pm)

    Went for a low tide walk between Carkeek Park and Golden Gardens last Wednesday. Didn’t notice any dead sea stars (didn’t know to look for it yet), but did see about a hundred small fish (silvery, size of a sardine) washed up dead in one location (about halfway between the two parks… perhaps near NW Neptune Pl). There was also a lethargic and nearly dead large crab nearby. Since it was all in one place we were thinking that someone in the neighborhood tossed something toxic into a storm drain there and the deaths were clustered around an outfall… but that’s pure speculation.

  • Colorado Bob December 16, 2013 (5:08 pm)

    Why Are Sea Stars Dying from New Jersey to Maine? Divers Asked to Report Large Groupings of Starfish

    July 23, 2013 — When University of Rhode Island graduate student Caitlin DelSesto collected starfish in Narragansett Bay for an undergraduate research project in 2011, she was surprised to watch as the animals appeared to melt and die in her tank within a week. After bringing it to the attention of URI Professor Marta Gomez-Chiarri, she learned it was among the first observations of a new disease that is now affecting starfish — also called sea stars — from New Jersey to Maine.

  • Colorado Bob December 16, 2013 (5:17 pm)

    “It’s like a zombie wasteland,” says Tucker, who is, like Perlkin, a field technician employed by the University of California, Santa Cruz (UCSC). “You’ll see detached arms crawling away from their body.”

    Among the animals now affected are the scavenger bat star, Asterina miniata; some species of sea urchin, an important source of food for threatened sea otters; and recreational and commercially fished species such as the California spiny lobster (Panulirus interruptus) and sheephead fish (Semicossyphus pulcher).

  • Colorado Bob December 16, 2013 (5:25 pm)

    Pacific Rocky Intertidal Monitoring: Trends and Synthesis

    Sea Star Wasting Syndrome Map: Last Updated: 2013-12-13

  • Colorado Bob December 16, 2013 (5:32 pm)

    To analyze the coral skeletons, the UCSC researchers combined carbon dating with a novel technique for analyzing nitrogen isotopes in proteins. They were able to reconstruct records over the past 1,000 years indicating that a shift occurred around 1850 in the source of nitrogen feeding the surface waters of the open ocean. As a result of decreasing nitrogen inputs from subsurface water, the phytoplankton community at the base of the food web became increasingly dominated by nitrogen-fixing cyanobacteria, which are able to use the nitrogen gas absorbed by surface waters from the atmosphere.

    “In the marine environment, the two major sources of nitrogen are dissolved nitrate, which is more concentrated in the subsurface and deep water and is brought to the surface by upwelling, and nitrogen fixation by specialized microorganisms that are like the legumes of the sea,” explained first author Owen Sherwood, who worked on the study as a postdoctoral researcher at UCSC and is now at the University of Colorado, Boulder.

    The shift revealed in the coral record–from an ecosystem supported by nitrate coming up from deeper waters to one supported more by nitrogen-fixing organisms–may be a result of the North Pacific Subtropical Gyre expanding and becoming warmer, with more stable layering of warm surface water over cooler subsurface water. This increased “stratification” limits the amount of nutrients delivered to the surface in nutrient-rich subsurface water.

  • Colorado Bob December 16, 2013 (5:38 pm)

    ” the phytoplankton community at the base of the food web became increasingly dominated by nitrogen-fixing cyanobacteria,”

    Dangerous little bugs those things…

  • Colorado Bob December 16, 2013 (5:41 pm)

    The extent of the change is dramatic: a 17 to 27 percent increase in nitrogen-fixation since about 1850, after almost a millennium of relatively minor fluctuations. “In comparison to other transitions in the paleoceanographic record, it’s gigantic,” Sherwood said. “It’s comparable to the change observed at the transition between the Pleistocene and Holocene Epochs, except that it happens an order of magnitude faster.”

  • Colorado Bob December 16, 2013 (6:41 pm)

    Dear Laura,

    You’re not alone . Last winter , 60 million Monarch butterflies made back to Mexico . The lowest number ever seen , this winter just 3 million came back.

    Watching your clip broke my heart , more proof of the crash of nature.

  • diverlaura December 16, 2013 (8:46 pm)

    The thing that worries me is sliding baseline.

    We are a mere handful of weeks out from the beginning of the mortality event at the first two sets of pilings. They are now barren of Sea Stars and the bacteria and scavengers have almost completely cleaned up all the evidence. If a new diver or diver new to the area goes out to this site, unless they have seen old photo’s or video, they will never know how amazing, colorful and the diversity of life with 5 or 6 species of Sea Stars covering them, much less how dramatic and overwhelming the mortality event itself was. How many other sites have been similarly impacted? I can think of 10-12 off the top of my head. How many times have things like this happened before, perhaps decades ago (and the life never returned to normal) and my generation doesn’t even know what we are missing…

  • hammerhead December 16, 2013 (10:19 pm)

    While I have not dived these sites for years. I do remember the abundance of starfish and sea anemone, crap. It saddens me beyond belief.

    It sadly looks like Hawaii, all dead. Night diving was always the best.

  • Kari December 17, 2013 (12:10 pm)

    Laura, we were diving two weekends ago in Hood Canal at Octopus Hole, Sund Rock, Mike’s Resort. So far the starfish looked plentiful and healthy.

    However, it’s possible they might be starting to be affected. One arm would be curling up off whatever it was attached to, for example.

    If I get out there again soon, I’ll post any changes I see.

    There are SO MANY starfish in our waters normally, all different colors, shapes and sizes. To see what our underwater environment looks like normally and then to think that they are all gone in certain areas is very disturbing. Kari

  • denise December 20, 2013 (6:21 am)

    They did a story last night on coast to coast am with Geo. Noiry (sp)…a real eye opener in the middle of the broke my heart…I recall stories lately of whales beaching themselves again..forget off of what coast…

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