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Deadly Epidemic Hits West Coast Starfish

PHOTO: A deadly epidemic known as "Sea Star Wasting" has hit sea stars on the U.S. West Coast, killing up to 95 percent of a particular species in some tide pool populations. Photo credit: UC Santa Cruz.
PHOTO: A deadly epidemic known as "Sea Star Wasting" has hit sea stars on the U.S. West Coast, killing up to 95 percent of a particular species in some tide pool populations. Photo credit: UC Santa Cruz.
February 14, 2014

SANTA CRUZ, Calif. – A mysterious and sudden epidemic is hitting sea stars along the West Coast from Alaska to San Diego.

Scientists call it sea star wasting because the starfish can literally disintegrate into goo in a matter of days.

Pete Raimondi, a biologist and professor at University of California-Santa Cruz, is leading the research efforts to save the starfish.

"We've been getting lots and lots of reports from the public,” he says. “You know, sea stars are pretty conspicuous. Most people, when they go out to tide pools, that's one of the things they see and they look for.

“And when the disease hits there's no missing it – things are just decomposing and dripping, and they just look awful.”

The wasting disease has killed up to 95 percent of a particular species of sea star in some tide pool populations.

Raimondi says scientists aren't sure what's causing the disease or if it will get worse.

He says the situation is especially troubling because starfish are a keystone species, meaning their health is an indicator of the overall health of the marine ecosystem.

Raimondi points out this could have a dramatic effect on the Pacific Coast ecosystem.

"They're oftentimes one of the top predators and so, they tend to eat a lot and there tend to be a lot of them,” he explains. “And so, they really can control prey populations and when they go away, in theory, the prey will not be eaten."

The California Ocean Science Trust and other state agency partners are funding Raimondi's research.

He says California was able to respond so quickly because the state has invested in Marine Protected Areas and the scientific monitoring necessary to understand how they work.


Lori Abbott, Public News Service - CA