Sea Stars Still Dying Along the Oregon Coast

I’ve read the news reporting that millions of sea stars have died along the West Coast, but for some reason it didn’t sink in until this weekend. I took a trip back home to Oregon and visited Cannon Beach. Growing up, my family took trips there annually to the Oregon Coast. If you’ve never experienced the waters of the Oregon Coast, let me tell you, it’s not ideal for swimming. It’s more of a dare to see how long you can stay in, because it’s ice cold.

As a result, we found other ways to enjoy the beach. We built driftwood forts, ate our fill of taffy and fudge, and explored tide pools. This is what I remember it looking like.

Photo of sea stars along Cannon Beach in Oregon by Dan Klimke.

Haystack Rock seastars along Cannon Beach in September of 2007. Photo taken by Dan Klimke.

This weekend, my siblings and I explored those exact same tide pools for over 45 minutes, until I finally found the leg of a sea star peeking out of a cove. One single sea star. That’s when it sank in, something is wrong.

The one single sea star at Haystack Rock tide pools along Cannon Beach in 2014. Photo by Dani Tinker.

The one single sea star at Haystack Rock tide pools along Cannon Beach in 2014. Photo by Dani Tinker.

Samantha Ferber, Coordinator for the Haystack Rock Awareness Program, estimates that more than 90% of the sea stars in the lower intertidal areas have been killed in the past 15 months. The culprit is wasting disease, which causes lesions to form on the sea stars. In more severe instances, sea stars essentially melt away and turn to mush.

Though we have to wait for more research and analysis, preliminary surveys seem to indicate that sea stars are showing less severe symptoms. If these sea stars are able to reproduce, they’d hopefully pass on “stronger” genes, allowing the next generation to fight off the pathogen more successfully. That could be great news for sea stars.

Wasting syndrome is not as prevalent in juveniles, which also might offer a bit of hope. This is an issue worth following, as research continues and we wait to see what the future holds for sea stars. Only time will tell.

How to Help

Please feel free to explore and look at organisms in tide pools, but don’t touch. Samantha reminded me that touching a sea star with wasting disease can spread it to healthy individuals. This is one possible reason the disease spread so rapidly through the population at Haystack Rock.

There are a few ways to help as citizen scientists. If you observe sea stars that appear to be suffering from wasting disease, please submit your data and photos, as it’s important to monitoring this issue. Take a look at a map of all the incidents of sea star wasting disease along the West Coast, found by data from monitoring surveys, scientists, and the general public.

Live in Oregon? Volunteer at Cannon Beach! The Haystack Rock Awareness Program is conducting surveys every 3 months to contribute to MARINe’s (Multi-Agency Rocky Intertidal Network) database. They are always looking for new people to help monitor and educate the public. Folks can sign up to volunteer by emailing volunteerhrap@ci.cannon-beach.or.us.

Keep up to date on other wildlife issues in the Pacific Northwest and California with NWF’s regional offices.

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