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Sea star wasting disease had severe impact on sunflower sea stars in the Salish Sea

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Credit: Joe Gaydos, SeaDoc Society

Sea star wasting disease caused a severe decline in sunflower sea star populations in the Salish Sea off the coast of British Columbia and northern Washington state, according to a study published October 26, 2016 in the open-access journal PLOS ONE by Diego Montecino-Latorre from the University of California Davis, USA and colleagues.

Sea star wasting disease broke out in 2013, causing large scale population decline in several species of sea stars along the west coast of North America, from Mexico to Alaska. Infected animals develop lesions leading to tissue decay, with limbs dropping off as the animals die. Previous research on the disease has mainly focused on intertidal populations, and little is known about how the disease impacts sea stars living below the low tide water line.

Montecino-Latorre and colleagues investigated the impact of sea star wasting disease on species in the Salish Sea, which straddles the U.S./Canadian border and is home to a diverse number of sea star species. The researchers used a combination of data collected by scientific divers during 2014 – 2015 and longer term data collected by trained recreational scuba divers to assess the effects of the 2013 outbreak on species.

The authors found dramatic declines in populations of sunflower sea stars, Pycnopodia helianthoides, along with several other sea star species. Sunflower sea stars are a key predator in the Salish Sea ecosystem and the researchers found that some sea urchin prey species, which feed on habitat-forming kelp beds, showed a corresponding increase after 2013.

The authors warn that these sea star wasting disease effects could have long term effects on the Salish Sea ecosystem. Sunflower sea stars have effectively disappeared from the Salish Sea, the study concludes, and the researchers are in discussions with the National Marine Fisheries Service to have the sunflower sea star listed as a "species of concern".

"Sunflower stars are major predators," says Joe Gaydos, wildlife veterinarian and chief scientist with the UC Davis School of Veterinary Medicine's SeaDoc Society. "This [decline] is probably going to change the shape of the ecosystem."

Adapted from a press release provided by the authors.

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In your coverage please use this URL to provide access to the freely available paper: http://dx.plos.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0163190

Citation: Montecino-Latorre D, Eisenlord ME, Turner M, Yoshioka R, Harvell CD, Pattengill-Semmens CV, et al. (2016) Devastating Transboundary Impacts of Sea Star Wasting Disease on Subtidal Asteroids. PLoS ONE 11(10): e0163190. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0163190

Funding: Funding for 100 focused Advanced Assessment Team REEF surveys in the San Juan Islands in 2013, 2014 and 2015 was provided by the SeaDoc Society and numerous private donors (including S. and N. Albouq, L. Ceder, C. Curry, J. Luce, A. Phelps Ford, the Seattle Aquarium and M. Wyckoff). The funders had no role in study design, data collection and analysis, decision to publish, or preparation of the manuscript.

Competing Interests: The authors have declared that no competing interests exist.

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