Proposed Emergency Legislation Aims To Address Starfish Wasting Syndrome

Sep 18, 2014

Most people who've grown up in the Northwest can remember walking on the beach as a kid, enjoying tide pools full of brightly-colored starfish. But beachcombing has become less joyful over the past year. An epidemic known as sea star wasting syndrome has devastated huge populations of starfish, especially on the West Coast.

U.S. Rep. Denny Heck, D-Olympia, has introduced an emergency act in Congress to respond to the outbreak. The syndrome was first noticed in Washington waters last summer and has spread rapidly since. White lesions appear on the skin of affected starfish which then curl up, contort and disintegrate.  

Professor Drew Harvell, a marine ecologist with Cornell University, says researchers are not certain what’s causing it, but its impact is huge.

“This is the largest underwater disease epidemic on our U.S. shores, stretching from Alaska to Mexico on our West Coast and covering an unknown area on the East Coast, and involving over 20 species," she said. 

This sick orange ochre star was seen this summer in the San Juan Islands in Washington. The starfish has an arm missing, another arm tearing off and lesions visible on the top arm.
Credit Courtesy of Drew Harvell

And the ecological effects of the outbreak are not yet fully understood, though they're bound to be big. Starfish are a keystone species with a large role in the food web as many of them are voracious eaters. 

"They eat a ton of whatever it is they're eating," Harvell said. "In the case of the ochre star, they eat a lot of clams and muscles. And in the case of the sunflower, it seems to eat almost everything, including a lot of urchins. And so to take all of these species away is certainly going to change the seascape."

Heck has worked with Harvell to write legislation that would channel research dollars. 

“The working theory is that perhaps a virus is spreading because sea water has warmed up, but the fact of the matter is we don’t know that for sure and we need to find out," Heck said, adding the bill does not have any co-sponsors yet.

The U.S. National Climate Assessment recently identified a danger of increasing disease outbreaks in the ocean with warming. This August has been confirmed as the warmest ever on record.

In addition to addressing the sea star epidemic, Heck’s Marine Disease Emergency Act would also set up NOAA as a lead agency to recruit a working group of experts and create funding mechanisms to deal with future outbreaks of marine disease. The act would authorize up to $15 million per year, which would have to be appropriated separately, and it would establish an emergency fund to accept private donations. 

Heck says federal laws are already in place to respond to emergency epidemics that affect marine mammals and wildlife on land, but his act would be the first to address outbreaks affecting non-mammals in marine environments, including sea stars.