Wasting disease hits West Coast sea stars

An epidemic may be looming for the West Coast’s sea star population.

An outbreak of Sea Star Wasting Syndrome hit the lower mainland last summer and made its way towards the Gulf Islands but dodged local shores.

Ucluelet Aquarium curator Laura Griffith-Cochrane believes the West Coast might not be lucky twice.

“We’ve started to see traces of it in the Ucluelet harbour so it has hit here,” she said.

She said information about the disease is hazy but research is being done to determine what it is and how it can be stopped.

“We don’t 100 per cent know the exact cause yet but we are coming up on what’s going to be a pretty warm year and we do know that, like all things, warmer temperatures help to spread disease,” she said. “We are seeing it now and there might be a big outbreak of it on the West Coast this year.”

The disease turns up in Ucluelet every year but usually no more than a handful of local sea stars are infected.

“Right now what we’re seeing is not just the one case that happens a year which is normal; we’re seeing lots,” Griffith-Cochrane said.

She said sea stars infected with the disease appear “almost like they’re melting” as the animal’s soft tissue begins to break apart.

As a sea star’s soft tissues decay its calcium deposits, called ossicles, become exposed and the disease spreads throughout its body.

“If it hits right in the centre of a sea star the arms will actually detach and the arms have almost like their own nervous control so they’ll walk away from one another,” Griffith-Cochrane said. “It kind of looks like the body of the sea star got in a big argument with itself and every arm is going off in its own direction.”

Sea stars, like all echinoderms-a classification that includes sand stars, sea cucumbers, and sea urchins-can regenerate and heal themselves over time, which is a prime reason they can live for over 200 years but the Sea Star Wasting Disease can overpower these regeneration abilities and prove fatal, according to Griffith-Cochrane.

“We have had sea stars get it in the aquarium before and we’ve isolated them and overtime they’ve healed,” she said “But when it compromises more than 30 per cent of its body then it begins to fall apart.”

The aquarium is keeping track of the disease and is hoping locals can assist their efforts.

“We don’t have the funds to do active research but we’re really interested in it so we’re documenting and observing throughout the season,” Griffith-Cochrane said.

She encourages anyone who comes across what looks to be a sick sea star to photograph the animal note the time and location and bring this information to aquarium staff so a database can begin to be mapped out.

The Vancouver Aquarium is reporting the coast of British Columbia is currently experiencing a sea star mass mortality event, coined Sea Star Wasting Syndrome.

“The wasting syndrome may be a pathogen that affects several species in the same way, or there may be multiple agents at play. The underlying causes of the epidemic are not known,” the facility said, adding that they are working with many research sources to discover its causes.