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Pathogen likely cause of massive sea star die-off in B.C. waters

Creative Commons photo courtesy of Brian Gratwicke/Flickr

Creative Commons photo courtesy of Brian Gratwicke/Flickr

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    Cheryl Santa Maria
    Digital Reporter

    Monday, May 5, 2014, 1:58 PM -

    In October sea stars almost completely vanished from the waters surrounding Vancouver, leaving scientists at a loss to explain why.

    The problem was first reported in August 2013 upon the grim discovery that sea stars were disintegrating on the ocean floor, turning into "goo" by the time they reached the lab for analysis.

    Donna Gibbs, a research diver and taxonomist, told The Canadian Press that the unknown epidemic has been killing off the starfish at an alarming rate.

    "They’re gone. It’s amazing," she told the news agency.

    "Whatever hit them, it was like wildfire and just wiped them out."

    RELATED: Fukushima radioactivity found in Oregon, Washington state tuna

    Other species of sea stars have been affected as well, resulting in a massive die-off involving millions of creatures between British Columbia and Mexico.

    Now, research is suggesting that either a bacterial or viral pathogen is the culprit -- although a definitive cause has yet to be determined.

    One thing they know for sure, though, is that the disease is an efficient killer with a mortality rate of about 95 percent.

    "It's very deadly in the regions where it's happening," Lesanna Lahner, a veterinarian at the Seattle Aquarium, told the Canadian Press.

    While scientists aren't sure what caused the outbreak they've ruled out radioactivity from the 2011 Fukushima nuclear disaster in Japan.

    "There has been substantial speculation in the media that the disease could be a result of increased radiation from the nuclear power plant disaster in Fukushima ... We have no evidence to suggest that radiation is a likely culprit,"  The Multi-Agency Rocky Intertidal Network, or MARINe, says in a statement on its website.

    Scientists say that at present they know little about the disease or how to prevent it, adding that it could be part of a natural cycle.

    With files from The Canadian Press

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