Mysterious sea star disease makes its way to Oregon

The mysterious disease that has caused widespread sea star die-offs in Puget Sound is now killing dozens of sea stars off the Oregon Coast.

Divers with the Oregon Coast Aquarium made the discovery during a survey on April 27 that revealed 48 dead and dying sea stars in a 60-square-meter area in Yaquina Bay on Oregon’s central coast. The symptoms of wasting syndrome were seen in sunflower stars, ochre stars and giant pink stars.

Divers from the The Oregon Coast Aquarium documented some of the afflicted sea stars of off Oregon’s central coast.

Sea stars infected with the disease physically deteriorate before they die. In some cases, afflicted arms break off from the sea star’s body and walk away before dissolving completely. Scientists suspect a bacteria or virus is causing it, but they don’t know for sure. Until April, there had only been a few cases reported in Oregon.

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Erin Paxton, a spokeswoman for the Oregon Coast Aquarium, says divers had been conducting surveys in the ocean off the central Oregon coast since January, but they hadn’t found any afflicted sea stars until their April survey.

“They found, basically dead, melting animals,” Paxton said. “Their arms were curling up, they had signs of lesions or arms had detached and walked away from the bodies completely.”

Aquarium divers are planning additional surveys this month.

One of the afflicted sea star arms documented on a recent dive off the central Oregon coast. Image courtesy of Oregon Coast Aquarium

One of the afflicted sea star arms documented on a recent dive off the central Oregon coast. Image courtesy of Oregon Coast Aquarium

“We just found it, so we don’t know how widespread it is yet,” she said. “It is concerning. The species affected are widely regarded as a keystone species in the Oregon rocky reef ecosystem. If it widely the species off our shores, that will change the entire food chain for that marine food web.”

The aquarium research team is working with researchers at University of California at Santa Cruz, the Partnership for Interdisciplinary Studies of Coastal Oceans (PISCO), Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife and the Multi-Agency Intertidal Network.

Kristen Milligan, program coordinator for PISCO, said the problem documented off the Oregon coast goes beyond symptoms that appear in sea stars from stressful environments.

“The current outbreak along the West Coast is ‘true’ wasting disease, meaning that sea stars have these extreme symptoms while in suitable ‘healthy’ habitat,” she said.

Watch the original report from KCTS9/EarthFix that aired on the PBS NewsHour in January.

This report first appeared on EarthFix’s website. EarthFix is a public media project of Oregon Public Broadcasting and Boise State Public Radio, Idaho Public Television, KCTS 9 Seattle, KUOW Puget Sound Public Radio, Northwest Public Radio and Television, Southern Oregon Public Television and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

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