by Mikael Thalen
May 7th, 2014
Updated 05/07/2014 at 8:21 pm
Scientists announced the discovery of “melting” sea stars off the coast of Oregon this week, the state’s first known sighting of the mysterious condition that began appearing throughout West Coast waters last year.
According to Jim Burke, Oregon Coast Aquarium’s director of animal husbandry and dive operations, several species of sea star in Yaquina Bay were recently found in the advanced wasting stage.
“One could speculate that it’s just beginning and will continue to be detrimental to the sea star population,” Burke told the Statesman Journal. Oregon now joins California, Washington state and Western Canada, where disintegrating sea stars continue to baffle scientists.
“There’s a lot of scientists and researchers still scratching their heads,” Burke said. Others such as Kristen Milligan, program coordinator for the Partnership for Interdisciplinary Studies of Coastal Oceans, noted the severity of the situation as well. “The current outbreak along the West Coast is ‘true’ wasting disease, meaning that sea stars have these extreme symptoms while in suitable ‘healthy’ habitat,” Milligan said.
Oregon Coast Aquarium divers will be joined by experts at the University of California at Santa Cruz to begin weekly surveys of two effected dive sites. Although samples from other states have been sent to several labs for analysis, a conclusive cause has yet to be determined according to researchers.
Last November, Storyleak spoke with veteran videographer and underwater explorer Laura James, who discovered more than 100 melting sea stars in the waters of West Seattle. “We don’t know what is causing it,” James said. “The sea stars that are dying are apex predators of the seafloor and a keystone species. What will be interesting is what will happen to the biodiversity now in the aftermath.”
Underwater footage captured by James first revealed just how devastating the die-off had become, with some scientists calling it one of the worst ever recorded. “This was beyond my imagination,” James said. “It was like carnage or a mass grave. Dead and dying sea stars, body on top of body.”
While scientists have remained tight-lipped on possible causes, the public continues to question the die-off’s link to the ongoing nuclear disaster in Fukushima, Japan. Given radiation’s ability to bio-accumulate in sea life, other recent anomalies such as the sardine population’s historic decline have many worried.
Just as researchers at the Institute for Cross-Disciplinary Physics and Complex Systems in Spain predicted, increasing amounts of radiation have begun accumulating along the West Coast since the beginning of 2014. Although sea life such as Tuna have been contaminated with “low levels” of nuclear radiation from swimming through the pacific since at least 2012, scientists analyzing kelp off the coast of San Diego confirmed the presence of cesium earlier this year.
The recent discovery of “never before seen” conjoined gray whale calves off the coast of Northern Mexico has also sparked increased debate. While scientists continue to downplay the situation in Japan, a fuel fragment from Fukushima just found in Norway has proven the situation to be much more disastrous than previously thought.