Sea star wasting syndrome is a general description of a set of symptoms that are found in many species of sea stars. Lesions appear, rapidly expand, and eventually cause the body to fragment and the individuals to die. Wasting disease can progress rapidly, leading to death after just a few days following the first appearance of symptoms. This project focuses on assessing disease prevalence in the Salish Sea and enlists the help of established citizen-science programs, including programs coordinated by WSG, to sample more easily accessible areas.
Washington Sea Grant worked with Oregon and California Sea Grant, responding quickly to document and investigate this mysterious animal disease. In Washington, research teams, including WSG experts, surveyed subtidal and intertidal areas from the San Juan Islands to South Puget Sound. They trained and equipped a statewide network of about 100 volunteers to survey 18 intertidal sites statewide, recording the number, size, and condition of any stars present. The team reached out to the public through seminars and media appearances and created a seastarwasting.org website with a frequently updated tracking map. They conducted laboratory experiments to see whether wasting stars could infect healthy ones.
The collected survey and observational data contributed to an important paper coauthored by WSG- and OSG-sponsored researchers and published in PNAS that identified a densovirus associated with sea star wasting syndrome. But laboratory experiments found that, while healthy stars housed with wasting stars did become sick, densovirus transmission between them was not the cause—suggesting a more complex etiology.