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Star Crossed Sea Stars: Understanding Sea Star Wasting Syndrome

killer whale by Jeff Hogan

Image: Basket Star by J. Gaydos

In the very first year of a SeaDoc collaboration with the Reef Environmental Education Foundation (, SeaDoc scientists and trained REEF volunteers played a key role in determining the extent of a potentially ecosystem-altering sea star die-off.

With reports of a major mortality event among sunflower sea stars in British Columbian waters, our team completed 120 dives at ten sites in the San Juan Islands. Along with looking for sick sea stars, we also surveyed local fish and invertebrate populations, gathering intelligence that will be used by SeaDoc and other researchers over the coming years to see how well our efforts to restore the ecosystem are working.

SCUBA divers in dry suits scoured the San Juans' kelp forests and rocky reefs in 49-degree water. They counted sick and healthy stars and identified six species that showed signs of disease. Collaborating scientists Drew Harvell & Ian Hewson (Cornell University) and Harley Newton (Wildlife Conservation Society) are now studying the samples we collected to determine whether the sea star die-off is spreading south from British Columbia or if we are just detecting the normal background level of sick sea stars because we are looking.

Important work like this is difficult yet essential. In the past, lack of solid scientific monitoring meant that huge drops in important Salish Sea species (animals like rockfish and abalone) went unnoticed until populations had collapsed. SeaDoc is helping to prevent that.

Report sick and healthy sea stars

You can help monitor this outbreak. The Vancouver Aquarium is collecting reports of sick and healthy sea stars throughout the Salish Sea. Visit their Sea Star Wasting Syndrome page at At the bottom of that page you can submit condition reports and photos of sea stars.


Curious what this outbreak looks like? Sea star expert Neil McDaniel shared some of his photos of healthy and diseased sea stars. The before-and-after photos are particularly striking. See them at Janna Nichols' SCUBA photo page:


The Vancouver Aquarium shared a video of a sea star disintegrating over the course of a few hours. Watch it here:

Media coverage

KUOW's John Ryan interviewed Joe Gaydos for a piece on the outbreak:

"Every population has sick animals,” said SeaDoc Society wildlife veterinarian Joe Gaydos, on a boat off Orcas Island between research dives. “Are we just seeing sick animals because we’re looking for it, or is it an early sign of a large epidemic that may come through and wipe out a lot of animals?”

Read or listen:

King5 also covered the story.

This work was made possible by donations to SeaDoc from private citizens.

If you'd like to support SeaDoc's important research projects, please make a donation, come to our next Wine 'n' Sea Auction on July 12, 2014, or consider making a legacy gift to SeaDoc as part of your estate plans.

Thank you!

donate now at


About SeaDoc

The SeaDoc Society uses science to find solutions the problems facing marine ecosystems. We are a program of the Wildlife Health Center, a center of excellence at the UC Davis School of Veterinary Medicine.


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