Researchers along North America's West Coast are tracking what they say are drastically decreasing sea star numbers. Since 2013, they have been monitoring both the number of sea stars lost each year and trying to understand what's causing the decline, without much luck.

"The news is not good, we have lost a lot," Drew Harvell told On the Island's Gregor Craigie.

Harvell, a professor of ecology and evolutionary biology at Cornell University is currently monitoring populations of the species in San Juan Islands in Washington State.

"In the places that we counted, we saw about 90 (to) 95 per cent disappearance at our site." She says the research they have done so far suggests a virus is behind the die-off. However, although pathogen related death is natural, the magnitude of this epidemic is not.

Experts have 'no idea' what to expect next

The epidemic has been called sea star wasting syndrome by researchers, and United States Congressman Denny Heck introduced a bill asking for federal assistance to help control the die-off.

Harvell said the worst part is the uncertainty over the remaining numbers.

"We have no idea what's going to happen next. I wish we did."

She says the upcoming summer season will be a crucial time period for the current starfish population.

"Last year the big mortality events in our waters were during the warm month so we'll be watching the 10 per cent survivors carefully."

Corrections

  • A previous version of this story referred to the epidemic as a massive extinction. In fact, it is a mass die-off of sea stars.
    Apr 17, 2015 9:02 PM PT