The mysterious disappearance of hundreds of thousands of starfish all along the Pacific Coast has left researchers in British Columbia scratching their heads.
Marine experts in Howe Sound say thousands of starfish, which once over-populated the shores of northern Vancouver, have been dying in record numbers from an unknown epidemic since early September.
Donna Gibbons, a researcher at the Vancouver Aquarium, told CTV News that she first noticed the problem last fall during a routine dive in which she found a large number of sea stars – commonly known as starfish-- with missing limbs and decaying internal organs.
Within weeks of the discovery, Gibbons said the sea stars had all gone.
“They went from healthy, to melting, to completely gone,” she said.
“So we think whatever hit them was like a wildfire and it hit them really quickly.”
The star-shaped invertebrates recently witnessed an inexplicable population boom along the Pacific Coast, with some regions reporting starfish stacked several layers deep.
The vanishing sea creatures have caused concern among marine experts who have dubbed the epidemic Sea Star Wasting Syndrome.
Researchers have had trouble gathering specimens for testing, as many of the starfish collected for study disintegrated in the lab.
A joint team of scientists in B.C. and the United States is currently searching for clues to explain what may have caused the mass die-off.
Some experts suggest that the sudden rise in sea star populations may have made the sea creatures more susceptible to disease, while others point to warming waters and lower ocean oxygen levels.
Researchers are also studying the potential impact of Japan’s Fukushima nuclear disaster on the marine environment.
Dr. Christopher Mah, a leading sea star expert, says that while all possible causes for the starfish wipeout must be considered, it is unlikely that Fukushima is to blame for the epidemic.
“There just doesn’t seem to be any evidence,” Mah said.
“If we are talking about this wave of radiation, that should be affecting everything and we are not seeing that.”
As marine scientists work to solve this mystery, many say it could take months, even years, before the cause of the wipe-out is known.
With a report from CTV Vancouver’s Melanie Nagy