This year hasn’t been good for Patrick Star. Starfish from Mexico to Alaska have been melting mysteriously for over a year now. The illness called the “sea star wasting disease” has been spreading like wildfire across North America’s Pacific coast last year.
It’s not a great way to go. The arms of the starfish curl up and white lesions appear. The sea star (the biologists’ preferred term for starfish) then starts to deflate, and its arms start to fall off. In a few days, what was once a glorious star is no more than a glob of goo.
This has caused alarm among scientists, and rightly so among bureaucrats, so much so that the researchers were able to undertake a massive study to find out what has causing the sea stars to disintegrate.
While they may seem to be laying on the sea bottom doing nothing, it turns out that they are a gluttonous bunch. They eat mussels, sea urchins and other small animals, many of which don’t have any other natural predators. Hence, when the starfish are gone, these animals reproduce like crazy, crowding out other species like coral, which support coral reefs.
The culprit behind the sea star devastation is a virus. Furthermore, it turns out that it’s been around for a long time. Traces of the virus were found in museum samples dating all the way back to 1942.
So while the culprit behind the outbreak has been identified, the reason for the recent epidemic remains a mystery. Outbreaks in the past were linked to warm water temperatures but the water has been cooler in the past year. Another cause may be starfish overpopulation, caused by the availability of food from West Coast city sewerage which causes algal blooms, feeding mussels and other animals that the starfish eventually eat.
Hopefully, we find out soon what’s causing the starfish’s plague. In the meantime, it would help if we find ways to cut down on our waste.