Mass Starfish Die-Off May Be Headed For Washington

Oct 14, 2013

Scientists in two nations are on the lookout for an underwater epidemic that is killing starfish.

In September, divers in Vancouver Harbour and Howe Sound near Vancouver, British Columbia, noticed the pizza-sized starfish known as sunflower stars wasting away and dying in large numbers.

“The sick ones tend to just fall apart in front of your eyes,” Vancouver Aquarium biologist Jeff Marliave said. “An arm will actually break off and crawl away. They turn into goo.”

Sunflower stars are not your typical starfish: They can have up to two dozen arms, spread three feet from tip to tip and weigh 12 pounds. They usually live deeper than other sea stars, so you’re unlikely to see these purple and orange giants unless you’re diving or pulling up a crab pot from the depths.

The sick ones tend to just fall apart in front of your eyes. They turn into goo.

Sunflower stars have become so abundant around Vancouver in the past decade — with some habitats becoming solid walls of sunflower stars — that Marliave said he actually welcomes the mystery disease knocking back their numbers.

“I have been puzzling for upwards of a decade, how is this really capable killer and eater of sea life going to come under control?” he said. “This seems to be the solution. If you have too many of them for too long, they’re going to get sick.”

Sunflower stars are voracious predators. They can chew through almost anything in their path — from clams to kelp beds. A big question is will the fast-moving epidemic spread to other sea life or to other parts of the West Coast? ...

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