Starfish Wasting Disease Found at Icy Strait Point, Long Island, Whitestone Harbor, and False Bay

A blood star (Henricia leviuscula), potentially afflicted by sea star wasting syndrome in False Bay. Photoed on a mosaic of coral, sponge, tunicates and algae.

Sea star wasting syndrome is a widespread disease that causes lesions, tissue decay and eventual fragmentation and death of starfish in mass numbers. Since 2013, the magnitude and global spread of sea star wasting disease has been unprecedentedly large – and scientists don’t yet know why it has become so widespread, or how to stop it.

In 2019, HIA Environmental sampled 100 starfish for sea star wasting disease. Using DNA sequencing, researchers at Cornell University and the Scripps Institute at the University of California San Diego identified 15 positive cases at every location sampled on Chichagof Island, including: ISP, Whitestone Harbor, False Bay, and Long Island.

Healthy blood star surrounded by pale filter feeding anthozoans and what appears to be orange tunicates .
A mottled star (Evasterias troschelii) amidst blue mussels and rockweed in the shallow intertidal waters of Chichagof Island.
Stimson’s sun star (Solaster stimpsoni) on a muddy field apparently devoid of life, but actually rich in benthic underground life, including worms and filter feeding bryozoa .
A “constellation”of starfish on a submerged rock underneath Hoonah’s tunnel.
The bizarre basket star (Gorgonocephalus eucnemis) using a strong current to ensnare breakfast.
A rare encounter with a leather star (Dermasterias imbricata) (orange) in a constellation.
A vermilion star (Mediaster aequalis) scavenging in competition with sea cucumber for food and detritus on the seafloor.
A sunflower sea star (Pycnopodia helianthoides), in orange and red.
Another sunflower, this time in blue and orange.
A constellation of what appear to be gray brittle stars (Ophiura luetkenii) near Coyote Beach.

Why does this matter?

Hoonah is not immune to global environmental change – problems like sea star wasting disease, ocean acidification, climate change, and warming sea surface temperatures are already impacting our community and will continue unless something is done.

We can’t blame everything on viruses. Sea Star Wasting Syndrome was initially suspected to be associated with densovirus. The research HIA contributed to shows that densovirus may not be the cause of the disease.

A blood star (Henricia leviuscula), potentially afflicted by sea star wasting syndrome in False Bay. Photoed on a mosaic of coral, sponge, tunicates and algae.

While pretty, starfish also play a very important role in coastal ecosystems as predators. In fact, the word “keystone species” was first used to describe the importance of starfish. Their feeding activities control the entire coastal shallow water ecosystem. If they are removed in mass numbers, the balance that supports our coast and our livelihoods may begin to slip out of control.

Sea Star Wasting Disease is not known to be transmissible to humans – you don’t need to worry about your arms falling off unless you are a starfish. However, the disease is dangerous to marine ecosystems that support cultural traditions, economies, and recreation.

Learn more about the disease and research here.

Special thanks to TRAYLS member Ted Elliot and former Americorps VISTA member Arianna Lapke for assisting with the sampling. Sean Williams, Coastal Program Manager, coordinated and collected samples. Photos by Ian Johnson, Sean Williams, Arianna Lapke, and Jack Elliot.

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