Monterrey bay aquarium
west coast
April 10, 2014

A Starfish Mystery


Shelby: Now we are heading west, where an unknown illness in the ocean is changing the California coastline. Tom Hanson has the story.

Tom: It is unlike anything he has ever seen before.

Pete Raimondi: People are down there all the way as far as you can see.

Tom: When walking the beaches of Santa Cruz, California, all Scientist Pete Raimondi sees is gray.

So, this beach would typically be sprinkled with purple and orange at this time of year, and all year, right?

Raimondi: It would be, yeah. Down low, in and amongst mussels, would be kind of these purple and orange… From the cliff, you can really see them. They’re very vivid.

Tom: A time when the rocky coasts of northern and central California should have brightly colored starfish, also called sea stars, clinging to the rocks. But in the past year, they have all disappeared from a mysterious disease.

Raimondi: The disease came through a few months ago and we might have seen thirty or forty in this area here. I’d be surprised if we find any as we’re walking around.

Tom: Wow!

It is a scientific mystery and no one has a clue how or why this is happening on the West Coast, only that the sea stars are dying, thousands, maybe even millions of them, from a condition called wasting syndrome.

Raimondi: The symptoms include wasting away of the flesh and the body of the sea star that occurs over a pretty short period of time.

Tom: You are saying that some of the species could we wiped out from an area in a day?

Raimondi: Yeah.

Tom: Missing limbs, discoloration. The sea stars suffer a painful death, withering away. And the disease appears to choose its unlucky targets and regions randomly. Some areas unaffected, other areas close by, completely wiped out.

According to scientists, it has been detected as far up as Alaska and as far south as Mexico, and even here at the Monterey Bay Aquarium in California, which brings in water from the open sea to fill its tanks.

The mystery disease has contaminated its filters and countless sea stars have died.

The healthy ones, like this one, are kept in the exhibits. But Dr. Mike Murray shows me what they do with the ones that are infected.

I was just asked to put on these gloves in case we handle any of the dead starfish that suffered from wasting syndrome, and I assume that is because we don’t want to spread the disease.

He takes me to a freezer.

Dr. Mike Murray: You know, we’ve got a lot of different types of specimens in here; some which are more palatable to the eye than others.

Tom: A graveyard of sea stars.

You can see that they have these gaping holes in the body and that is where erosion has occurred once the wasting syndrome happens. What happens after that is that bacteria seeps into those holes and ultimately kills the sea star.

Scientists are studying these infected sea stars looking for answers to what is causing the disease.

Raimondi: We don’t know where we are in the progression of the disease. We might be at the beginning and it’s going to get way worse. We might be in the middle. We might be at the end. We don’t know. We have no experience with this level of disease.

Tom: But one thing they do know, their disappearance is having an impact on the ecosystem.

So it may look like I’m standing on a bunch of rocks right now but these rocks are actually living and breathing. They are not rocks at all, in fact. They are these mussels, and the only thing missing from this scene is the sea star, which you can typically find in these pools around me.

Sea stars are predators on the food chain, eating other creatures. As the sea stars disappear, other species are taking over the rocks.

Raimondi: One of the predictions in their absence is that the mussel bed will start moving down.

Tom: Oh, wow! So it will start taking up more space as the mussel population becomes more abundant.

Raimondi: That’s right.

Tom: Raimondi says he doesn’t know when or if the starfish will return. But one thing he says we can expect: waves of change.

Raimondi: It is a big deal. It doesn’t mean that it’s going to be catastrophic. It just means there’s change. Big change.

Tom: Tom Hanson, Channel One News.


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