Oregon’s starfish are turning to goo, too.
The state’s population no longer appears isolated from a widespread disease outbreak killing thousands of starfish from California to Alaska.
Oregon Coast Aquarium divers surveying starfish at the entrance to Yaquina Bay on April 27 found sunflower and ochre starfish suffering from a deadly phenomenon that scientists have termed “sea star wasting disease.” The disease’s cause isn’t yet known.
The divers were about 25 feet deep when they found starfish with severe signs of wasting disease. Some were disintegrating into white goo and dropping arms. It’s the first major discovery of dying starfish on Oregon’s coast. Until now, just one tide pool site with a few dying starfish had been found near Yachats last year. Jim Burke, the aquarium’s dive operations director, said his underwater survey found about 30 healthy starfish and 22 with signs of wasting disease.
“You see an arm totally off, or the base of a body really milky, or an arm starting to separate,” he said.
Starfish die-offs have happened before in Southern California in 1983-84 and 1997-98, when El Niño events turned ocean waters warmer than normal. But those events were localized, only affecting portions of the population. That made it easier for starfish to recover.
Scientists say they’ve never seen a die-off of this magnitude. It’s spread through most of the starfish’s range, which stretches from Alaska to Baja California. And it’s affecting several starfish species including pisaster, the five-armed, orange and purple starfish commonly seen in Oregon tide pools. That has researchers concerned about the starfish’s recovery chances.
Burke said he hadn’t before seen dying starfish in nearly 100 dives this year and last. He plans to continue monitoring the Yaquina Bay site with another visit soon to see whether — as at other sites affected by the disease — all the starfish die.
And scientific divers will be surveying Oregon’s coastal waters through October, keeping an eye out for dying starfish, Burke said.
“Our goal is to document and work with other groups to do as much as we can to monitor it — and with the help of our veterinarian and others — try to get to the underlying cause,” Burke said.
Divers or tidepoolers can submit reports of sick or healthy starfish to crowd-sourced efforts at inaturalist.org and sickstarfish.com.