British Columbia

Sea star wasting disease: 'The more we study it, the less we understand'

Volunteers in Campbell River are studying the ongoing problem of sea star wasting disease and what has caused its resurgence in recent years.

The sea star wasting disease has had a domino effect on B.C. species and ecosystems

Local Campbell River residents taking part in a sea star count on World Ocean's Day. (Ricky Belanger)

Volunteers in Campbell River are studying the ongoing problem of sea star wasting disease and what caused its resurgence in recent years.

Campbell River Discovery Passage Aquarium manager Ricky Belanger and 11 volunteers embarked on their first sea star count this week at Willow Point in Campbell River. The volunteers spent two hours and surveyed 135 sea stars.

"We want to capture what a healthy population looks like," said Belanger.

The volunteers found that the sea stars were visually healthy, which isn't always the case when warm water temperatures rise and sea stars are subject to wasting disease. Typically, they look mushy and soft.

"Like you put a sea star in a blender," said Belanger.

Despite a healthy count this year, he says the sea star disease is having a wider domino-like effect on the B.C ecosystem.

Belanger says sea star disease is connected to the current growth of sea urchins.The sea urchins eat kelp forests which are habitats for small fish.

"Fewer kelp forests can put fish populations at risk," said Belanger.

Misunderstanding the disease

Sea star wasting disease has been plaguing B.C. sea stars since 2013, but this year their conditions have improved.

"We did have a small wasting event that did happen last year. However, this year it seems the remaining animals are quite healthy," said Belanger.

The researchers and a team of volunteers will embark on more sea star counts in the coming weeks. (Ricky Belanger)

He says researchers find there's multiple factors causing the syndrome, one of which is the densovirus. Belanger calls it small and difficult to detect.  

More research does not always lead to definitive conclusions.

"The more we study, the less we know," he said. It's  actually not quite well understood, even after five or six years of researchers really putting a lot of time and effort into figuring out what causes [it]," said Belanger.

Volunteers will head out again in the coming weeks for a second count. If Campbell River residents would like to get involved with the Discovery Passage team, they can sign up to volunteer.

With files from All Points West

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