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Flora and Fauna | Environment

Underwater Video: Starfish Die-offs Hit Hood Canal

Sunflower star in Hood Canal losing its arms, a symptom of sea star wasting syndrome.

Sunflower star in Hood Canal losing its arms, a symptom of sea star wasting syndrome.

Laura James


SEATTLE — In the last few months, Laura James has seen more dead and dying starfish than she can count. But the diver and videographer was shocked by what she saw in Hood Canal this weekend.

James had been receiving reports from her fellow scuba divers in the area that a wide array of starfish, also called sea stars, were showing symptoms of the strange wasting disease that’s been devastating populations from Alaska to Mexico.

On Sunday she took her camera to Sund Rock, a diving hotspot near Hoodsport, Washington, and this is what she found.

Watch underwater video:

Nearly all of the starfish she encountered had symptoms of the wasting disease or had already disintegrated into piles of goo.

“The speed that it hit the whole area baffles me,” James said. “Last week the stars in Hood Canal were doing reasonably well. How could it hit everything all at once overnight?”

James dove from the shore to a depth of about 100 feet and stars at all depths appeared symptomatic. They looked deflated, weak and floppy. Arms had fallen off. In some cases, only globs of melted stars remained.

“Hood Canal is already an ecosystem on the edge,” James said. “How is it going to handle losing all its starfish?”

Back in January, James started the website, and asked people to check on the starfish in their waters. Since then she’s received reports from divers and beachcombers around the world telling her about the health of their local starfish.

These citizen scientists have sent emails and upload pictures tagged #sickstarfish to social media sites. Lately the reports have been picking up, she said and many are coming from the southern reaches of Puget Sound and especially Hood Canal.

“Because of these citizen scientists reports, we’re getting more refined data and it’s giving us a clearer picture of what’s happening with this disease,” James said.

Researchers at University of California Santa Cruz have incorporated these citizen scientist reports into their map of the outbreak. Scientists at the University of Washington and Cornell University are eager for more detailed information and are asking volunteers to send in reports and observations to this site.

—Katie Campbell