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Wasted. What is happening to the sea stars of the NE Pacific Ocean?

Where to relay sea star data  (of great value in understanding the survival, range, extent and potentially, contributing factors of Sea Star Wasting Disease): University of California Santa Cruz at this link or what I find much easier is to email (with species, depth, time, location, photo, and ideally  GPS coordinates).


Last update: May 20, 2021

Sunflowers Stars (Pycnopodia helianthoides) were added to the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) list as Critically Endangered on December 10th, 2020.

See the media release from the Nature Conservancy “Iconic Sea Star Listed Critically Endangered After Study Finds Marine Epidemic Event Nearly Wiped Out Global Populationat this link.

Latest research steps away from virus(es) being the cause.

New research published on January 6th, 2021 (Aquino et al) suggests that the pathogen is not a virus but my sense is that this is up for scientific debate. What is consistent in the hypothesis about the cause is that changing environmental conditions allow the pathogen (be it bacteria or viruses) to have a greater impact on sea star species.

There has also been much media coverage on how Sunflower Stars are being bred in captivity. While such efforts are of course to be applauded and are part of the research needed to understand / mitigate Sea Star Wasting Syndrome, the inclination of the media to put this forward as the solution is troublesome. If the pathogen causing Sea Star Wasting Syndrome is not known, and the stressors related to climate change continue, releasing these Sunflower Stars into the Ocean would expose them to the same stressors as those who died.

The January 2021 research puts forward that warmer oceans and increased organic matter appear to lead to increases in specific bacteria (copiotrophs) that then use up the oxygen at the interface of the sea star and the bacteria, and the sea stars can’t breathe. It appears that the “more heavily affected species were rougher and therefore had a much larger boundary layer (the layer at the animal-water interface) than those species which were less affected.”

Cornell University’s coverage of the research includes:

“New Cornell-led research suggests that starfish, victims of sea star wasting disease (SSWD), may actually be in respiratory distress – literally “drowning” in their own environment – as elevated microbial activity derived from nearby organic matter and warm ocean temperatures rob the creatures of their ability to breathe.

“As humans, we breathe, we ventilate, we bring air into our lungs and we exhale,” said Ian Hewson, professor of microbiology in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. “Sea stars diffuse oxygen over their outer surface through little structures called papulae, or skin gills. If there is not enough oxygen surrounding the papulae, the starfish can’t breathe.”

“It’s a cascade of problems that starts with changes in the environment,” Hewson said, explaining that most of the organic matter comes from microscopic algae exudation (a discharge), zooplankton excretion and egestion, and from decaying animal carcasses. This stimulates a group of bacteria called copiotrophs, which survive on carbon and rapidly consume organic matter, he said.

The copiotrophs respire, he said, so while absorbing the organic matter, they deplete oxygen in the sea star’s watery space.

“It’s organic matter concentrations in the water,” he said. “If you have a dead and rotting starfish next to starfish that are healthy, all of that dead one’s organic matter drifts and fuels the bacteria, creating a hypoxic environment. It looks like disease is being transmitted.”

Hewson said that while more scientific work must be done, “This reframes the discussion about marine disease ecology, which has focused on pathogenic disease,” he said. “We should now include microorganisms that don’t directly cause the pathology, since they may hold a key to affecting sea star health.”

See the latest research at:

January 6, 2021: Aquino CA, Besemer RM, DeRito CM, Kocian J, Porter IR, Raimondi PT, Rede JE, Schiebelhut LM, Sparks JP, Wares JP and Hewson I (2021) Evidence That Microorganisms at the Animal-Water Interface Drive Sea Star Wasting Disease. Front. Microbiol. 11:610009. doi: 10.3389/fmicb.2020.610009. See Cornell University coverage of this research “Organic matter, bacteria doom sea stars to oxygen depletion”. Also, see further communication from one of the lead researchers, Dr. Ian Hewson, at this link. 

November 2020: Hewson, I.; Aquino, C.A.; DeRito, C.M. Virome Variation during Sea Star Wasting Disease Progression in Pisaster ochraceus (Asteroidea, Echinodermata). Viruses 2020, 12, 1332.

Great summary article of this latest research: Science News for Students, February 9, 2021, “Choked by bacteria, some starfish are turning to goo
Microbes that thrive in warm, nutrient-rich water are stealing the sea stars’ oxygen”

Sea Star Wasting Disease (SSWD) – summary of current state of knowledge

Since 2013, more than twenty species of sea star have been impacted by SSWD from Mexico to Alaska. There is local variation in intensity of the disease and which species are impacted. It is one of the largest wildlife die-off events in recorded history. Currently (2020), some species of sea star appear to be recovering while others remain heavily impacted (e.g. Sunflower Stars, Pycnopodia helianthoides).

Initial research suggested that Sea Star Wasting Syndrome was caused by a virus. The virus is reported to have been in the environment since 1942 (found in preserved sea stars) but that environmental stressors allow it to be more virulent.

However, subsequent work by Hewson et al found that the situation is much more complex and that the identified virus appears to cause SSWD only in Sunflower Stars.  From Dr. Ian’s Hewson’s blog “A non-infectious etiology for Sea Star Wasting Disease” of January 6, 2021, the following:

“Revisiting our work on viruses, we looked at what types of viruses infected tissues as animals wasted, and saw nothing distinct to wasting sea stars; this confirmed that sea star associated densovirus, at least from an association standpoint, could not be associated with sea star wasting disease. Looking at bacterial microbiomes provided a significant clue for wasting disease, and one that we hadn’t expected. While not a perfect correlation, bacteria which thrived in low or no oxygen environments seemed to appear immediately before or at the time that lesions on the animals appeared. Normally seawater is replete with oxygen – so how could anaerobes persist and proliferate? Looking at other types of bacteria, it seemed that several genera and species of bacteria which thrive on high organic matter, called copiotrophs, seemed to increase in abundance before the animals developed lesions. Normally sea stars put out a bunch of highly usable (called labile) organic matter, so this was not unexpected. However, these observations stimulated the idea that perhaps wasting disease was somehow related to microbial activities at the interface between animal tissues and overlying waters. But why would this happen? Bacteria normally thrive on organic matter not only excreted from animals, but also by matter that is excreted by phytoplankton and other primary producers, excreta of zooplankton, and decaying carcasses of animals. Looking at trends in primary productivity at a field site at which sea star wasting was also monitored, it became clear that sea star wasting occurred annually when phytoplankton abundance was maximum or immediately after, oxygen concentrations were lowest, and temperature was greatest. These observations and surveys generated a new hypothesis: bacterial activity at the animal-water interface, stimulated by organic matter from phytoplankton or other algal material or possibly by decaying animal tissues (which would be present in tissue homogenates) may lead to suboxic microzones at the animal-water interface; this may in turn affect the animal’s ability to maintain their tissues, repair wounds, and fend off invading microorganisms through breaches in their tissues.

So, in 2019 we pursued additional experiments to directly test these; we incubated sea stars in aquaria where oxygen was depleted and compared them to fully oxygenated controls; almost all treated animals developed lesions and died, whereas those in controls stayed healthy throughout our experiment. We then tested whether organic matter, when added directly to sea stars, could generate wasting. We chose two amendments mimicking our hypothesized phytoplankton-OM link to wasting (an algal culture and naturally collected phytoplankton), and something that we knew would stimulate most marine bacteria (peptone). Most organic matter addition caused SSWD, and furthermore led to changes in their microbiomes which were consistent with what we saw in the earlier survey monitoring sea stars that wasted without any additional stimulus. We took this as proof that wasting was indeed related to microbial activity occurring at the animal-water interface.

But lingering questions remained, notably: Why were some species more heavily affected than others? And was this effect at work in 2013-2014 during mass mortality? To answer the first question we asked whether there were physical differences in the sea stars which may cause more extensive layers of still water to occur on their surfaces. We examined this using computed tomography, which showed that more heavily affected species were rougher (and therefore had a much larger boundary layer (the layer at the animal-water interface) than those species which were less affected. Because we didn’t have specimens from 2013-2014 that were amenable to molecular work (due to several freezer failures), we instead looked for signals of anaerobic processes in affected specimens from the time (compared to healthy ones) using stable isotopes. Certain elements become enriched under anaerobic conditions; indeed, specimens in anaerobic conditions had greater amounts of these signals than healthy specimens collected at the same time.

The results of this work have important implications. Normally the word “disease” is synonymous with some kind of infectious agent, be it a virus, bacterium or other microbe. Our work, however, suggests that sea star wasting was caused by non-pathogenic microorganisms living near, but not within, sea stars. It also suggests that there may be diseases in marine habitats that may look like they’re being transmitted from one individual to another, but in fact may be via transfer of organic matter from dying or decaying individuals to healthy individuals.

There are still alternate explanations for sea star wasting disease etiology – for example, could the organic matter that is released from dying stars be some kind or hormone or other molecule (organic in nature) that told healthy stars to die? Or could the sheer presence of high bacterial activity on animal surfaces result in some kind of inflammation which ultimately leads to wasting? And what on earth was the sea star associated densovirus doing to stars if not causing significant disease? All these questions will hopefully be answered by other researchers in the future.”

Why share this information? It is often marine species that testify to environmental problems first, serving as indicators for the resources upon which we too depend. The hypothesis remains that the sea stars have succumbed in an unprecedented way because of changed ocean conditions (stressors). Too few of us realize the importance of sea stars in the ocean food web (see video below) let alone the importance of what they might be indicated about environmental health.

Below, January 30, 2019 video by the Hakai Institute re. Sunflower Stars and Sea Star Wasting Disease.

Detail on research and observations in reverse chronological order:

October 21, 2019 – Research by Rogers-Bennet and Catton published in Scientific Reports on Bull Kelp deforestation off the coast of Northern California  – Marine heat wave and multiple stressors tip bull kelp forest to sea urchin barrens. Abstract: “Extreme climatic events have recently impacted marine ecosystems around the world, including foundation species such as corals and kelps. Here, we describe the rapid climate-driven catastrophic shift in 2014 from a previously robust kelp forest to unproductive large scale urchin barrens in northern California. Bull kelp canopy was reduced by >90% along more than 350 km of coastline. Twenty years of kelp ecosystem surveys reveal the timing and magnitude of events, including mass mortalities of sea stars (2013-), intense ocean warming (2014–2017), and sea urchin barrens (2015-). Multiple stressors led to the unprecedented and long-lasting decline of the kelp forest. Kelp deforestation triggered mass (80%) abalone mortality (2017) resulting in the closure in 2018 of the recreational abalone fishery worth an estimated $44 M and the collapse of the north coast commercial red sea urchin fishery (2015-) worth $3 M. Key questions remain such as the relative roles of ocean warming and sea star disease in the massive purple sea urchin population increase. Science and policy will need to partner to better understand drivers, build climate-resilient fisheries and kelp forest recovery strategies in order to restore essential kelp forest ecosystem services.”

January 30, 2019 – Paper published in Science Advances by Harvell et alDisease epidemic and a marine heat wave are associated with the continental-scale collapse of a pivotal predator (Pycnopodia helianthoides). Quote from lead author: “The main takeaway is the speed with which a multi-host infectious disease can cause decline in the most susceptible host [Sunflower Stars] and that warming temperatures can field bigger impacts of disease outbreaks.” Abstract includes: “Since 2013, a sea star wasting disease has affected >20 sea star species from Mexico to Alaska. The common, predatory sunflower star (Pycnopodia helianthoides), shown to be highly susceptible to sea star wasting disease, has been extirpated across most of its range. Diver surveys conducted in shallow nearshore waters (n = 10,956; 2006–2017) from California to Alaska and deep offshore (55 to 1280 m) trawl surveys from California to Washington (n = 8968; 2004–2016) reveal 80 to 100% declines across a ~3000-km range. Furthermore, timing of peak declines in nearshore waters coincided with anomalously warm sea surface temperatures. The rapid, widespread decline of this pivotal subtidal predator threatens its persistence and may have large ecosystem-level consequences.”

The paper’s discussion includes: “Cascading effects of the P. helianthoides loss are expected across its range and will likely change the shallow water seascape in some locations and threaten biodiversity through the indirect loss of kelp. P. helianthoides was the highest biomass subtidal asteroid across most of its range before the Northeast Pacific SSWD event. Loss or absence of this major predator has already been associated with elevated densities of green (Strongylocentrotus droebachiensis), red (Mesocentrotus franciscanus), and purple urchins (Strongylocentrotus purpuratus) across their range, even in regions with multiple urchin predators. Associated kelp reductions have been reported following the outbreak . . . SSWD, the anomalously warm water, P. helianthoides declines, and subsequent urchin explosions . . . have been described as the “perfect storm.” This “storm” could result not only in trophic cascades and reduced kelp beds but also in abalone and urchin starvation.”

July 2018 – Research published by Burt et al) quantifies the importance of Sunflower Stars in maintaining kelp forests. Includes that the decline of Sunflower Stars  “corresponded to a 311% increase in medium urchins and a 30% decline in kelp densities”. See video below and news coverage on the research at this link.

March 7, 2018 – Additional research by Hewsen et al has found that, while a virus appears associated with the disease in Sunflower Stars, the situation is more complex and the virus does not appear to be the cause in other sea star species.  The cause is “likely a complex tango of diverse potential pathogens and environmental conditions” / “We speculate that SSWD may represent a syndrome of heterogeneous etiologies [causes] between geographic locations, between species, or even within a species between locations.” Those considered in the paper in addition to viruses: Drought / excessive rainfall; freshwater toxins (transmitted by excessive rainfall post drought); temperature swings.

This does not let climate change off the hook. Quote by lead author: “Since some of those disease causes may include swings in temperature or precipitation, ultimately which may be related to climate change, we need to focus our efforts on remediating climate change . . ”
The paper suggests renaming the wasting disease to Asteroid Idiopathic Wasting Syndrome because the term correlates with an array of symptoms, “which is more correct for describing this situation, as there are likely multiple diseases present . . .”

Causes / stressors considered in the paper:

  • Drought / excessive rainfall ” . . . SSWD mass mortality onset occurred concomitant with or immediately following drought conditions in both the Salish Sea region and in central California. Likewise, onset of SSWD mass mortality in Oregon (which occurred after both the former regions) occurred during a period of drought . . .Rainfall events at the end of drought conditions potentially bring large amounts of contaminants from terrestrial and freshwater habitats into contact with coastal marine habitats.”
  • Freshwater toxins: ” . . .our observations demonstrate that freshwater-derived toxins were present in asteroids during the wasting event and may represent an additional source of organism stress.”
  • Swings in temperature: ” . . . some proportion of wasting may be influenced by warm and cool water temperature anomalies, and that wasting in some species occurs consistently with season (notably P. ochraceus [Ochre Star] and E. troscheli), our analysis could not identify a single or combination of parameters of environmental conditions that universally correspond with disease across multiple species or an entire geographic range.”

Green Urchins grazing on Split Kelp. ©Jackie Hildering.

Research published in June 2018 (Schiebelhut et al), specifically on Ochre Stars, found that the genetic makeup of the species has changed since the outbreak. Young Ochre Sea Stars are more similar genetically to adults who survived than to those who succumbed. This “may influence the resilience of this keystone species to future outbreaks”. The findings of an additional March 2018 paper (Miner et al) include ”  . . . we documented higher recruitment of Pochraceus [Ochre Stars] in the north than in the south, and while some juveniles are surviving (as evidenced by transition of recruitment pulses to larger size classes), post-SSWD survivorship is lower than during pre-SSWD periods.

Documentation by Neil McDaniel showing what can happen in the absence of sea star predators of urchins. Site is Sakinaw Rock near Sechelt, British Columbia.

Sources for the above:

Background information:

  • Has been raging since June 2013.
  • Unprecedented in both range, duration and number of species impacted – 20 species of sea star species since 2013 from Alaska to Mexico (local variation in intensity of the disease and which species are impacted the worst). It is one of the largest wildlife die-off events in recorded history.
  • A virus had been found in sick sea stars but this virus has been around since at least 1942 (was isolated in preserved sea stars). A stressor (or stressors) must be reducing the resistance of the sea stars to the virus.Virus is “Sea Star associated Densovirus” (SSaDV) (Hewson, et al ).
  • A correlation was found between increased temperature and death in sea stars but that other factors are likely play a role as well (Eisenlord, et al
  • Another study found that the disease also progressed when temperatures have decreased. (Menge, et al
  • Current situation: Varies by location and species of sea star. While there have been some “waves” of baby and juvenile sea stars, numbers of all species remain low and signs of wasting continue.
  • From my own observations on NE Vancouver Island: Here, Sunflower Stars are impacted the worst (the largest sea star in the NE Pacific Ocean with 20+ legs). Leather Stars may be more impacted than in other areas. Ochre Stars appear less impacted than in other areas. I have seen waves of Sunflower Star babies and juveniles. What I find most plausible is that the babies are the result of adults spawning at depth, where it is colder (reduced stressor). A stressor or stressors then reduces the resistance of the babies and juveniles in shallower water whereby they may succumb to SSWD.
  • In terms of ecosystem impacts, consider the important role of many sea stars as predators. I put forward that this can be likened to the death of many Sea Otters. With less sea stars there are more of their prey like mussels and clams. But, with less sea stars (especially Sunflower Stars), there are definitely more urchins which graze away more kelp. Thereby, there is less habitat for many species and a loss of biodiversity.
  • My album of photos of sea stars with symptoms can be found at this Facebook link.

Update November 2018
Lloyd, M, Pespeni, M (2018) Microbiome shifts with onset and progression of Sea Star Wasting Disease revealed through time course sampling. Scientific Reports.

Update October 2018
Schultz, Jessica; Sea star wasting – update!. Coastal Ocean Research Institute (CORI) Oceanwatch – BC Edition

Update March 2018: Additional research referenced above:
Hewson I, Bistolas KSI, Quijano Cardé EM, Button JB, Foster PJ, Flanzenbaum JM, Kocian J and Lewis CK (2018) Investigating the Complex Association Between Viral Ecology, Environment, and Northeast Pacific Sea Star WastingFront. Mar. Sci. 5:77. doi: 10.3389/fmars.2018.00077.

Miner CM, Burnaford JL, Ambrose RF, Antrim L, Bohlmann H, Blanchette CA, et al. (2018) Large-scale impacts of sea star wasting disease (SSWD) on intertidal sea stars and implications for recovery. PLoS ONE 13(3): e0192870.

Update December 2017: Recent rash of astoundingly erroneous news articles suggesting that sea stars are all one “species” and that they are rebounding e.g.Starfish making comeback after syndrome killed millions

Update May 2016: New paper – Menge BA, Cerny-Chipman EB, Johnson A, Sullivan J, Gravem S, et al. (2016) Correction: Sea Star Wasting Disease in the Keystone Predator Pisaster ochraceus in Oregon: Insights into Differential Population Impacts, Recovery, Predation Rate, and Temperature Effects from Long-Term Research. PLOS ONE 11(6): e0157302.

Update February 2016:  New paper – Eisenlord, et al  : ” . . . reported that temperature plays a role in the prevalence of Sea Star Wasting Syndrome (SSWS). Analyses showed that risk of disease-associated death was correlated with sea star size as well as water temperature. In adults, time between emergence of disease symptoms and death was influenced by temperature. Experiments also showed that adult mortality was higher in the warmer water treatments. Although adults showed disease symptoms more quickly than juveniles, diseased juveniles perished more quickly. This study was conducted in Washington State, where high mortality rates were experienced during 2014 in many areas, which coincided with warm temperature anomalies. While this study explained some factors that lead to SSWS, their models indicate that other unknown factors are likely playing a role as well.” Source:  SSWS updates University of California at Santa Cruz

Update October 2016:  New paper – Montecino-Latorre D, Eisenlord ME, Turner M, Yoshioka R, Harvell CD, Pattengill-Semmens CV, et al. (2016) Devastating Transboundary Impacts of Sea Star Wasting Disease on Subtidal Asteroids. PLoS ONE 11(10): e0163190. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0163190 

Update April 2016: Concern about decrease in sea stars leading to more urchins and, thereby, less kelp. CBC News; April 25, 2016 Scientists study ecological fallout of sea star die-off – Marine scientists are studying kelp to see how starfish wasting disease is changing the ecosystem. Study upon which this article is based: Schultz JA, Cloutier RN, Côté IM. (2016) Evidence for a trophic cascade on rocky reefs following sea star mass mortality in British Columbia. PeerJ 4:e1980;

Update February 2016:  Cornell University study showing link between temperature and incidence of the Syndrome: Ochre star mortality during the 2014 wasting disease epizootic: role of population size structure and temperature, Reporting on the study includes this item on the front page of the Seattle times on February 21st:Scientists now link massive starfish die-off, warming ocean.”

Update January 21, 2016: Province: “Sea star wasting disease among worst wildlife die-offs say scientists. Includes: “”This is, if not the, certainly one of the biggest wildlife die-offs that have ever been recorded, and we’re not just talking marine die-offs.”

Update May 3 , 2015: Seattle Times; “Starfish babies offer glimmer of hope amid mass die-off”. Includes: ” . . . a few baby starfish offered a glimmer of hope for the creature’s recovery . . . .“the question is when these babies get big, will you expect them to die like the adults? . . . . Not all the sites have seen juveniles and it hasn’t been broad . . .One theory for why there are so many juveniles [at this site in Washington] is that when adult starfish were stressed from the wasting disease, they released millions of eggs and sperm, increasing the chances for fertilization. Ideal conditions in recent months have helped push those larvae to the shore, where they’re able to cling to hard surfaces such as rocks and pilings to grow . . . And the worst of the wasting disease might still be ahead in some places, including along Washington’s Olympic Coast, where it was first reported in June 2013.”

Update April 9, 2015: California – wasting symptoms being seen in urchins.

Sunflower star with sea star wasting syndrome. Photo - Neil McDaniel;

Sunflower star with sea star wasting syndrome. Tissue wastes away. Legs often break off and crawl away briefly before rotting away. Photo – Neil McDaniel;

Update March 1, 2015: While symptoms of Sea Star Wasting Syndrome are still being seen in BC and I have seen no adult Sunflower Stars in the sites I have been monitoring on NE Vancouver Island, in several areas in BC, we are beginning to see juvenile Sunflower Stars. Sunflower Stars are the species that appeared to be most impacted in many areas of BC. Where are the young Sunflower Stars coming from? It may be, and this is my speculation, that there are Sunflower Stars at depth that survived the Syndrome possibly because they were not exposed to the same stressors e.g. the water at depth may be colder. 

Update November 18, 2014:  Study published today – cause of Sea Star Wasting Syndrome a densovirus that has been present for at least 72 years? Why has it led to mass mortality now? What makes sense is that, like any virus, the incidents of “pathogenicity” depends on stressors (e.g. temperature change) and proximity of individuals. The virus has also been found in other echinoderms like urchins and sand dollars and it persists in sediment = can be transmitted by those vectors and there is the potential that the other echinoderms are/will be affected. See the study by Cornell University at the link below (lead author Ian Hewson). Includes “If SSaDV is the cause of the current SSWD event, it is unclear why the virus did not elicit wide disease outbreaks in the past during periods in which it was detected; however, there are several possible reasons why the current SSWD event is broader and more intense than previous occurrences. SSaDV may have been present at lower prevalence for decades and only became an epidemic recently due to unmeasured environmental factors not present in previous years that affect animal susceptibility or enhance transmission.”

Update December 2014: Seeing juvenile Sunflower Stars around Northern Vancouver Island. The hope is that there might be a deep, cold water reservoir of animals.  I suggest that this offers further support that increased temperature may be the stressor that has increased the pathogenicity of the virus.

Good coverage in a 7-minute radio interview
Science Friday; December 5, 2014: “What’s Killing West Coast Starfish?” ] 


Original blog November 10, 2013:

There has already been much reporting on the gruesome epidemic spreading like wildfire through several species of sea star in the NE Pacific Ocean.

“Sea star wasting syndrome” is incredibly virulent and is causing the mass mortality of some sea star species in British Columbia and beyond. “Sea stars go from “appearing normal” to becoming a pile of white bacteria and scattered skeletal bits is only a matter of a couple of weeks, possibly less than that” (Source #1).

Rotting pile of sunflower stars. Photo and descriptor - Neil McDaniel;

Rotting pile of sunflower stars. Photo and descriptor – Neil McDaniel;

What I have strived to do is bundle the state of knowledge so far, relying heavily on the expertise of two extraordinary divers and marine naturalists: (1) Neil McDaniel, marine zoologist and underwater photographer / videographer who maintains a website on local sea stars and has put together A Field Guide to Sea Stars of the Pacific Northwestand (2) Andy Lamb, whose books include Marine Life of the Pacific Northwest.

I am hoping that kayakers, beach-walkers and fellow divers will help monitor and report on the spread of the disease via this link on the Vancouver Aquarium webpage but I am also hoping that all of us may learn from this tragedy that has impacted “one of the most iconic animals on the coast of British Columbia . . . more abundant and diverse in our waters than anywhere else in the world” (Source #3).

Sea star wasting syndrome reminds us of the fragility of ocean ecosystems; how very quickly disease could spread in the ocean; and how we are all empowered to reduce stressors that increase the likelihood of pathogens manifesting as disease or even that pathogens enter the environment (e.g. sewage).

Update January 18, 2014 – Video by Neil McDaniel showing the extent of the mortality in some parts of southern British Columbia.  Click here. 

Species impacted? (Update November 30th – Source #14)

High mortalities (note that the first 4 are members of the same family – the Asteriidae):

  1. Sunflower star (Pycnopodia helianthoideshardest hit in southern British Columbia. From communication with Neil McDaniel ” . . .so far I estimate it has killed tens, possibly hundreds of thousands of Pycnopodia in British Columbia waters.”
  2. Mottled star (Evasterias troschelii
  3. Giant pink star (Pisaster brevispinus)
  4. Ochre star aka purple star (Pisaster ochraceus)
  5. Morning sun star (Solaster dawsoni)

More limited mortalities:

  1. Vermillion star (Mediaster aequalis); video of an afflicted star here.
  2. Rainbow star (Orthasterias koehleri)
  3. Leather star (Dermasterias imbricata)
  4. Striped sun star (Solaster stimpsoni)
  5. Six-rayed stars (Leptasterias sp.)

Update January 21st, 2014Possibly: Rose star (Crossaster papposus) – I have noted symptoms in this species on NE Vancouver Island as has Neil McDaniel in S. British Columbia).

Update November 20th: The Vancouver Aquarium reports on which sea stars are and are not affected in S. British Columbia: “The majority of those species affected by the sunflower star epidemic are members of the same sea star family” and that the closely related morning sun star and giant pink star appear to get infected after feeding these “meals”.  (Source #10, includes video).

Symptoms and progression of the syndrome:

Neil McDaniel shared the following 7 images for the progression of the disease in sunflower stars [Source #2 and #14]. See the end of this blog item for images showing symptoms in other sea star species as well as a 1 minute time-lapse clip showing the progression of the syndrome in a sunflower star over 7 hours. [Note that the progression of the Syndrome on NE Vancouver Island appears that it may be different from what has been observed further to the south.]

1. In this image most of the sunflower stars appear healthy “other than one just right of center frame is exhibiting the syndrome, looking “thinned-out” and emaciated.”

Click to enlarge. Photo and descriptor - Neil McDaniel;

Click to enlarge. Photo and descriptor – Neil McDaniel;

2. This images “shows this thinning in close-up. Note how distinct the edges of the rays look and how flat the star is.”

Photo and descriptor - Neil McDaniel;

Click to enlarge. Photo and descriptor – Neil McDaniel;

3. This image “shows how the body wall begins to rupture, allowing the gonads and pyloric caeca to spill out.” 

As the animals become more stressed, they often drop several rays (which wander off on their own for a while). At this point the body wall becomes compromised and the pyloric caeca and/or gonads may protrude through lesions. As things progress, the animals lose the ability to crawl and may even tumble down steep slopes and end up in pile at the bottom. Soon after they die and begin to rot
Photo and descriptor - Neil McDaniel;

Photo and descriptor – Neil McDaniel;

4. This image “shows the gonads breaking through holes in the body wall. At this point rays often break off and crawl away briefly.”

Photo and descriptor - Neil McDaniel;

Photo and descriptor – Neil McDaniel;

5. As things progress, the animals lose the ability to crawl [and hold grip surfaces] and may even tumble down steep slopes and end up in pile at the bottom. Soon after they die and begin to rot.

Photo and descriptor - Neil McDaniel;

Photo and descriptor – Neil McDaniel;

6. The bacteria Beggiatoa then takes over and consumes all of the organic matter, leaving a scattering of skeletal plates on the bottom. The syndrome develops quickly and in only one to two weeks animals can go from appearing healthy to a white mat of bacteria and skeletal plates

Photo and descriptor - Neil McDaniel;

Photo and descriptor – Neil McDaniel;

7. This image “shows an individual star that is being consumed by mat bacteria.”

Photo and descriptor - Neil McDaniel;

Photo and descriptor – Neil McDaniel;

The 1-minute time-lapse video below shows the progression of the Syndrome in a sunflower star over 7 hours.

To date (January 2014), the cause (s) have not yet been identified. Scientific opinion appears to be that most likely the cause is one or more viruses or bacteria that have not yet been identified (more advanced investigations like DNA sequencing and metagenomics are now underway at Cornell University – Source #18 and #19) but toxins and environmental factors have not been ruled out as the primary cause or confounding causes (Source #18). As with any pathogen (like the flu virus), the expression of a pathogen as disease is influenced by number and proximity of individuals and could be exacerbated by environmental stressors. It is NOT radiation [Source #18, #19 and others].

Using cutting-edge DNA sequencing and metagenomics, Hewson is analyzing the samples for viruses as well as bacteria and other protozoa in order to pinpoint the infectious agent among countless possibilities.

“It’s like the matrix,” Hewson said. “We have to be very careful that we’re not identifying something that’s associated with the disease but not the cause.”

    • ”In previous outbreaks the “proximal cause” was found to a vibrio bacterium but “a recent wasting event on the east coast of the United States has been attributed to a virus  . . . such events are often associated with warmer than typical water temperatures . . . Please note that we do not know what is causing Sea Star Wasting Syndrome, and the cause may be different in different regions  . . .  the period prior to Wasting was characterized by warm water temperatures” (University of California Santa Cruz, Source #4).
    • Bates et al reported on an outbreak of wasting syndrome in ochre stars in Barkley sound in 2008. This included conducting lab experiments finding that the “prevalence and infection intensity were always higher in warm temperature treatments” and that “small increases in temperature could drive mass mortalities of Pisaster [ochre stars] due to wasting disease.” [Source #13 and #14]
    • “Do not believe this is related to a warming trend” (Source #18).
    • “Overpopulation” of sunflower stars appears to be a factor with outbreaks occurring where there is a high abundance of sea stars. “Often when you have a population explosion of any species you end up with a disease outbreak” (Source #5). “This could be perfectly normal as a way to control overpopulation” (Source #18).
    • “Some initial samples sent to DFO [Department of Fisheries and Oceans] and UBC [University of British Columbia] have not isolated a specific causative agent for this sea star die off. More samples are being collected and additional tests will be conducted” (Source #2 and #7). Viruses are notoriously difficult to detect. Cornell University (New York) has begun viral and bacterial culturing (Source #8). Updates will be provided here as they become available. See Source #14 for the results of pathology reports from October 4, November 12 and November 13.
    • Quote from Drew Harvell, a Cornell University professor of ecology and evolutionary biology who studies marine diseases: “these kinds of events are sentinels of change. When you get an event like this, I think everybody will say it’s an extreme event and it’s pretty important to figure out what’s going on . . . Not knowing is scary . . . If a similar thing were happening to humans, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention would commit an army of doctors and scientists to unraveling the mystery.” (Source #12)
    • Fukushima is a contributing factor?! There is no data to date to support this and, while of course radiation benefits nothing, I worry that pointing the finger away from ourselves takes away from the opportunity to recognize and act on how we all contribute to ocean stressors such as increasing temperature. From Source #19 – “scientists see Fukushima as an unlikely culprit because the die-offs are patchy, popping up in certain places like Seattle and Santa Barbara and not in others, such as coastal Oregon, where wasting has only been reported at one location.”
    • Ballast water? “From Source #19- “Others have wondered if a pathogen from the other side of the world may have hitched a ride in the ballast water of ocean-going ships. Scientists say this fits with the fact that many of the hot spots have appeared along major shipping routes. However, the starfish in quiet Monterey Bay, Calif. have been hit hard, whereas San Francisco’s starfish are holding strong.”

Range and timeline?

  • [Update December 21, 2013 – The Syndrome has been documented in sites from Alaska to the Mexican border – with gaps in knowledge especially off central and northern BC. See data acquired through the University of California, Santa Cruz on this map (Source #4) and the data acquired through the Vancouver Aquarium on this map (Source #3).]
  • June 2013 – First noted in the intertidal zone in ochre stars along the Washington Coast. “As of  December, signs of wasting had been observed at 45 of 84 MARINe sites [USA – Multi-Agency Rocky Intertidal Network] sampled since summer 2013, spanning the entire coast from Alaska to San Diego but varying in intensity from low levels of infection to mass mortality” [and with large gaps in data especially in northern British Columbia]. (Source #17). See map (Source #4) documenting the Syndrome in ochre stars in some locations from Alaska to the Mexican Border.
  • Late August 2013 – first reported in the sub-tidal in Howe Sound (Whytecliff and Kelvin Grove) by recreational diver Jonathan Martin (his photos here; video here). Sunflower stars were the main species impacted.
  • Mass mortality noted in Indian Arm in early October. “By late October the syndrome had been reported from the Gulf Islands, around Nanaimo and into Puget Sound and the San Juan Islands. It appears to be spreading throughout the entire Strait of Georgia and Puget Sound.” [Source #14].
  • First detected in the sub-tidal in sunflower stars in Washington State as of late October (Source #11 and #17). See a video here of a site in West Seattle before and after the outbreak. Update December 22nd: First reported off Whidbey Island, Washington.
  • Update December 21st: I am very sad to report that I have now found afflicted animals on NE Vancouver Island (Bear Cove, Port Hardy). Please see my blog at this link for photos, details and updates on the progression of the Syndrome on NE Vancouver Island].
  • Update January 19th, 2014: Morning sunstar with symptoms found in Campbell River [Reported by Dylan Smith].
  • No outbreaks on the west coast of Vancouver Island [Source #14].
  • “A smaller and isolated Atlantic outbreak, at points off Rhode Island and Maine, has also been noted.” (Source #12).
  • With regard to finding sunflower stars with the syndrome in Sechelt Inlet “This sighting is both disturbing and perplexing for a couple of reasons. First, Sechelt Inlet is hydrographically quite isolated from the rest of the Strait of Georgia, being a nearly land-locked fjord with minimal water exchange through Sechelt Rapids. Secondly [in Sechelt Inlet] Pycnopodia is a common sea star, but by no means abundant and certainly not found in anything near the incredible densities (up to 11/square metre) that we have encountered at the Defence Islands in Howe Sound” (Source #1). Jeff Marliave (VP of Marine Sciences at the Vancouver Aquarium) relates that the epicentre of the outbreak in Sechelt Inlet appears to be Egmont and that this correlates with a high abundance of sunflower stars there (Source #8).
  • Baby sea stars now seem to be coming back to areas where adult sunflower stars have been wiped out (Source #18).
  • You can aid understanding of the range and spread by inputting your data at this link on the Vancouver Aquarium webpage.

Has this happened before?
Never to this large a scale. “Although similar sea star wasting events have occurred previously, a mortality event of this magnitude, with such broad geographic reach has never before been documented.” (Source #17).

  • “Southern California in 1983-1984 and again (on a lesser scale) in 1997-98” (Source #4 and #13)
  • Florida (Source #5).
  • Update November 30: Sunflower die offs [on much smaller scale] have been noted in the past in Barkley Sound. In 2008 ochre star die offs were documented in Barkley Sound. In 2009 Bates et. al. reported on this and observed that the prevalence of disease “was highly temperature sensitive and that populations in sheltered bays appeared to sustain chronic, low levels of infection.” (Source #14 and #15).
  • “Similar events have occurred elsewhere over the last 30 years. Sea stars have perished in alarming numbers in Mexico, California and other localities” (Source #2).
  • “In July, researchers at the University of Rhode Island reported that sea stars were dying in a similar way from New Jersey to Maine .  . a graduate student collected starfish for a research project and then watched as they “appeared to melt” in her tank” (Source #5).

Ecosystem impact?

The impacted sea star species are carnivores, feeding high up in the food chain. This massive die off may lead to shifts / changes in marine ecosystems since there will be less predation by the affected sea star species (Source #9 and #12). Their prey includes: bivalves like mussels, marine snails, urchins and sea cucumbers.

    • “Once that disease is in the environment, it can be difficult to get the population [of the affected sea stars] back” (Source #5).
    • Ecologists consider sunflower and ochre stars to be keystone species because they have a disproportionately large influence on the distribution and abundance of many other species. Scientists anticipate that such a large mortality event in keystone species could change the intertidal and sub tidal seascapes . . . Previous examples of large-scale, mass mortality of individual marine species have resulted in dramatic ecosystem-wide changes” (Source #17).
    • “Sea stars are voracious predators, like lions on the seafloor. They gobble up mussels, clams, sea cucumbers, crab and even other starfish. That’s why they’re called a keystone species, meaning they have a disproportionate impact on an ecosystem, shaping the biodiversity of the seascape. “These are ecologically important species,”  . . . “To remove them changes the entire dynamics of the marine ecosystem. When you lose this many sea stars it will certainly change the seascape underneath our waters.” (Source #19)
    • Seeing baby sunflower stars back where adults have been wiped out in Howe Sound. Getting species like agarum kelp back (good habitat that was suppressed due to previous abundance of sea stars) but also seeing green urchins come back (will graze on kelp like sea stars do). (Source #18).

Video (7 min) on the state of knowledge on the Syndrome (January 2014) and showing the progression of the Syndrome in sunflower stars around Washington / Southern BC.


  1. Email communication with Neil McDaniel.
  2. Email communication with Andy Lamb.
  7. Shellfish Health Report from the Pacific Biological Station (DFO) conducted on 1 morning sun star and 7 sunflower stars collected on October 9, 2013 at Croker Island, Indian Arm; case number 8361.
  8. Email communication with Jeff Marliave.
  14. Sea star wasting syndrome, Nov 30-13 
  15. Bates AE, Hilton BJ, Harley, CDG 2009. Effects of temperature, season and locality on wasting disease in the keystone predatory sea star Pisaster ochraceus. Diseases of Aquatic Organisms Vol. 86:245-251
  16. Video showing impacts in Elliott Bay, Seattle
  17. University of California, Santa Cruz Press Release; December 22, 2013; Unprecedented Sea Star Mass Mortality Along the West Coast of North America due to Wasting Syndrome
  18. Vancouver Aquarium; January 21, 2014; Presentation – Mass Dying of Seastars in Howe Sound and Vancouver Harbour (Dr. Jeff Marliave and Dr. Marty Haulena).
  19. Earth Fix; January 30, 2014; Northwests starfish experiment gives scientists clues to mysterious mass die-offs 

Images showing symptoms in other sea star species:

Ochre star (aka purple star) with sea star wasting syndrome. Photo and descriptor - Neil McDaniel; Click to enlarge.

Ochre star (aka purple star) with sea star wasting syndrome. Photo and descriptor – Neil McDaniel;
Click to enlarge.

Mottled star with sea star wasting syndrome. Photo and descriptor - Neil McDaniel; Click to enlarge.

Mottled star with sea star wasting syndrome. Photo and descriptor – Neil McDaniel;
Click to enlarge.

Mottled star with sea star wasting syndrome. Photo and descriptor - Neil McDaniel; Click to enlarge.

Mottled star with sea star wasting syndrome. Photo and descriptor – Neil McDaniel;
Click to enlarge.

Mottled star with sea star wasting syndrome. Photo and descriptor - Neil McDaniel; Click to enlarge.

Mottled star with sea star wasting syndrome. Photo and descriptor – Neil McDaniel;
Click to enlarge.

Morning sun star with lesions indicating the onset of sea star wasting syndrome. Photo and descriptor - Neil McDaniel; Click to enlarge.

Morning sun star with lesions indicating the onset of sea star wasting syndrome. Photo and descriptor – Neil McDaniel;
Click to enlarge.

Giant pink star with sea star wasting syndrome. Photo and descriptor - Neil McDaniel; Click to enlarge.

Giant pink star with sea star wasting syndrome. Photo and descriptor – Neil McDaniel;
Click to enlarge.

What was once a giant pink star. Photo and descriptor - Neil McDaniel; Click to enlarge.

What was once a giant pink star. Photo and descriptor – Neil McDaniel;
Click to enlarge.

14 Responses to “Wasted. What is happening to the sea stars of the NE Pacific Ocean?”

  1. Good Jacqui

    Thank you Jackie for putting this together. I know you will keep up informed when more is known. So frightening and terrible.

  2. Ray Harper

    Is it possible that it it being spread by Sea Gulls? I have watched Sea Gulls eat Starfish along the shoreline at low tide. Could it be that they are eating infected ones, and when they digest the Starfish the droppings spread the disease into the water at some other point further away?

    • The Marine Detective

      Hello Ray, Valued thinking about disease vectors and why there may be some areas impacted from Washington to Alaska while others are not. If the pathogen survived the gut of seagulls, this would be plausible. I suspect however that the virus/bacteria is present in a greater range but that it does not manifest as disease due to the absence of stressors. But . . . we’ll wait and see what the experts determine.

  3. Dee Wilson

    Could the Fukishima fallout be the culprit here? It’s already showing up in Pacific seafood.

  4. Lyndell

    Hi, I hadn’t noticed your update about the sunstars until I came to let you know what I’ve seen the last few weeks. Doing a night training dive over on Quadra I thought I saw some small sunstars and then a day or two later a gull left one on our dock, got a pic of it. Glad to see them coming back. Can’t figure out how to send you a copy of the pic, if you would like to see it let me know how.


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