Starfish disease found on Oregon Coast

PORTLAND — A disease that has been killing starfish on the West Coast has made its first major appearance in Oregon.

Oregon Coast Aquarium divers at the entrance to Yaquina Bay at Newport last month found starfish with “sea star wasting disease” that causes their arms to fall off and turn to goo.

The cause of the disease isn’t known, the Oregonian reported.

It’s the first major discovery of dying starfish along Oregon’s coast. Last year, a few dying starfish were found in one tide pool near Yachats, about 25 miles south of Yaquina Bay.

Jim Burke, the aquarium’s dive operations director, said his underwater survey in April found about 30 healthy starfish and 22 with signs of wasting disease.

“You see an arm totally off, or the base of a body really milky, or an arm starting to separate,” he said.

Starfish die-offs have happened before in Southern California in 1983-1984 and 1997-1998, when El Niño events turned ocean waters warmer than normal. But those events affected only portions of the population. That made it easier for starfish to recover.

The current die-off is of greater magnitude, spread through most of the starfish’s range from Alaska to Baja California. It’s affecting several starfish species including the five-armed, orange and purple starfish commonly seen in Oregon tide pools.

Burke said he hadn’t before seen dying starfish in nearly 100 dives this year and last. He plans to continue monitoring the Yaquina Bay site to see whether all the starfish die, as at other sites affected by the disease.

Scientific divers will be surveying Oregon’s coastal waters through October, keeping an eye out for dying starfish, he said, in hopes of finding out the cause of the disease.

Others can report sick or healthy starfish online at inaturalist.org and sickstarfish.com.

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