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Sea Stars Going Extinct?

sea stars in the san juans
Photo by Drew Harvell

Around these parts, the orcas and seals get a lot of attention, but they aren’t the only species of fascinating and beautiful wildlife that can be found here. Far from it, in fact. Whale-watching may be the first thing that comes to your mind when you think of water activities in the San Juan Islands…unless you’re a scuba diver.

The waters of the Salish Sea offer some of the most spectacular scuba diving opportunities in North America, with widely varied underwater landscapes and a dazzling variety of reef creatures, such as sea stars. We have them in colors so vibrant you might not believe they are natural – purple, pink, orange and more.

But since June 2013, visitors, divers and scientists have started noticing an alarming trend all up and down the Pacific Coast, spreading from Alaska to Mexico and everywhere in between. Our sea stars on San Juan Island and Orcas Island have been developing a condition called “sea star wasting syndrome” at an alarming rate, causing massive die-offs.

“Sea star wasting disease is a general description of a set of symptoms that are found in sea stars,” says a report found on

Photo courtesy of San Juan Islander sea star disease locations
Photo courtesy of San Juan Islander

UC of Santa Cruz’s website. Typically, lesions appear in the ectoderm followed by decay of tissue surrounding the lesions, which leads to eventual fragmentation of the body and death.”

Basically, the sea stars start to waste away and then turn into “goo,” disappearing in as little as 24 hours.

Sea star wasting events in the past have typically involved only one species at a time. The alarming thing about this round of wasting is that it is affecting at least 12 separate species, including sunflower and ochre stars, which are considered keystone species. That means they have a huge affect on the rest of the ecosystem that they inhabit. They are instrumental in keeping the populations of mussels, barnacles and sea snails managed. And as fast and devastating as these die-offs are, that could mean big trouble for an ecosystem that has already been ravaged by pollution, radiation, overfishing, and habitat destruction.

Scientists haven’t figured out what’s killing the sea stars, but according to this article published by Cornell University, Professor Ian Hewson has been awarded a grant from the National Science Foundation to figure out the problem. Along with colleagues from Western Washington University and the Wildlife Conservation Society, he is trying to determine what organisms exist in both healthy and sick stars so he can pinpoint the cause.

Stricken by the wasting syndrome. Photo by Don Noviello
Stricken by the wasting syndrome. Photo by Don Noviello

According to an article in USA Today, scientists are thinking that the disintegration and subsequent death of the sea stars is probably due to bacterial infection of some kind, but they are stumped as to what is making them suddenly susceptible.

You can help in this important research by going here to report any observations of dying sea stars that you might make. Next time you’re tide-pooling or kayaking in the San Juans, keep an eye out for those sea stars that seem like they’re melting – you could be helping save an entire ecosystem!


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