Michael Kyte and his team were more than an hour into their search when they spotted their first dying sea star.
The orange mottled sea star had two detached arms and exposed white flesh – telltale signs of sea star wasting syndrome.
A semi-retired biology consultant from Seattle, Kyte has been leading volunteer groups to track signs of sea star wasting at Camano Island State Park since the spring of 2014. This was the first diseased specimen they had found in more than a year.
“This guy is alive still, probably, but it’s very sick,” Kyte said.
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Sea star populations have plummeted along the West Coast since wasting syndrome was first noticed on a Washington beach more than two years ago. Scientists still aren’t sure what’s causing the die-offs. They know they’re associated with a virus and that they often occur after periods of above-normal water temperatures.
They’re also unsure whether problems will subside, or ravage sea star species over the long term. That’s where the volunteer surveys come in.
Kyte’s group is one of seven citizen-science groups monitoring sea star populations in Washington’s intertidal zones. Other observers contribute data from points stretching from Anchorage, Alaska, down to Baja California.
The situation along the outer coast remains bleak. In a few areas of Puget Sound, including Camano Island, younger sea stars are showing up in large numbers. Still, populations remain far below what they were before wasting syndrome cropped up.
“We’re watching this area very carefully,” Kyte said. “We’re seeing the disease here and there. It’s not rife.”
Under a hot morning sun, he and seven other volunteers scoured the beach at extreme low tide. On hands and knees, they covered a 30-meter-by-4-meter area they had mapped out on a section of rocky, seaweed-and- barnacle-encrusted beach. It took about two hours.
They have followed the same protocol in each of their six trips to Camano.
They count sea stars, noting the species and measuring the radius – the distance from the center of the disc, or body, to the tip of an arm. They rated symptoms of wasting syndrome on a 0-to-4 scale. A 4 means the star is essentially dead, a 0 that it’s completely healthy.
On the recent outing, they found 139 stars representing three different species: ochre, mottled and sunflower stars. The mottled star with the detached arms was the only sick one in the survey area, though they did find another after wrapping up.
The volunteers included seasoned experts in marine science and a recent grad from Edmonds Community College. Some are broadening their perspective on life after a career in an unrelated field. For Roxie Rochat, a retired computer scientist who lives on Camano, marine projects are a way to better understand her surroundings and care for them.
“We all need balance in our lives,” she said. “We’re all here to find that balance.”
NEED FOR DATA
The volunteers’ data gets sent to Melissa Miner, a marine ecologist. Miner is based in Bellingham, but works for the University of California, Santa Cruz. She’s helping coordinate the sea-star monitoring work of citizen scientists, academics and federal agencies.
“When we first detected the sea star wasting syndrome a couple of years ago, we realized there were big parts of Washington where we had no data,” she said. “This was a good opportunity to bring in citizen scientists to start monitoring sea stars.”
Wasting syndrome was first noted in ochre stars (Pisaster ochraceus) in June 2013 along the Washington coast at Olympic National Park. In August of that year, divers noticed the syndrome was affecting a different species, sunflower stars, in the waters near Vancouver, British Columbia. Mass die-offs occurred that fall in Monterey, California, and in Puget Sound.
Experts now have documented wasting syndrome in about 20 different species, Miner said. So far, it’s not turning up in other marine animals.
The monitoring program began in early 2014 when Miner received funding from Washington Sea Grant, a federally supported program for marine science and education based at the University of Washington.
“Most areas (in Puget Sound) were doing OK until about May or June of 2014,” Miner said. “That’s when things ramped up big time. It seems to be correlated with a spike in temperature.”
Things improved over the winter.
“Now, we’re starting to see it crop up again in the same places as last year,” she said.
In addition to data that volunteers submit from the intertidal zone, she’s getting observations from divers who are looking at subtidal sea-star populations. Beach-walkers also have been sending in observations as they see afflicted stars.
Sea stars, also called starfish, are invertebrates that typically have five arms, though some have more.
There are several dozens of sea star species on the West Coast. They come in a brilliant array of colors. The mottled star can be various shades of blue, brown, orange or green.
On the ends of their arms, sea stars have eye spots, which allow them to see light and dark. They move around using thousands of tiny tube feet. Kyte called them “stalks with suction cups.”
Sea stars have no secondary sexual characteristics; you have to dissect one to tell whether it’s male or female.
Many people have heard about sea stars’ ability to regenerate body parts. Some fishermen have learned it the hard way. Suspecting that stars were hurting fish populations, they’ve hacked them into pieces and thrown them back into the water. Rather than getting rid of the sea stars, they soon multiplied, thanks to all those severed limbs.
“A sea star will regenerate the whole star, as along as there’s a piece of the disc attached to an arm,” Kyte said.
Now, the mysterious wasting syndrome is accomplishing what butchery could not.
Miner said she’s encouraged to see juvenile stars in areas such as Camano Island. On the other hand, the survivors don’t appear to be immune from wasting syndrome. That makes experts like Miner suspect that the recovery process could take a long time.
“There are healthy animals in a lot of places, just not as many as there used to be,” she said. “It really depends on where you are.”