Where Have All the Sea Stars Gone?

By Kristi Moos

The winter morning we arrived at Fitzgerald Marine Reserve was beautiful. The cold snap that had gripped Northern California was gently lifting, and the sun was rising high above the coastal mountains and hills.

A ranger greeted our group of EV volunteers as we gathered in the parking lot. He told us that conditions were perfect for exploring the tide pools: winds were light and the waves were calm. Harbor seals were sunning on the outer reef, and the inter-tidal zone was rich with marine life.

The EV has been leading local children on field trips to the tide pools at Fitzgerald for many years. But this day would bring something new. “Please alert us,” the ranger said. “If you find any sea stars on your hike today.”

We understood his concern: a new, mysterious illness has been rapidly killing sea stars along the Pacific Coast. Scientists call it “sea star wasting syndrome” to describe the symptoms: first, the sea stars develop white lesions. Then their arms begin to “waste” and dissolve away.

When we arrived at the tide pools that morning, few of us were prepared to teach the children about sea star wasting syndrome. Would we talk about this mystery illness with our students? What would we say, knowing so little about the cause?

Since its discovery in June 2013, the disease has wiped out large numbers of sea stars, as well as sea cucumbers, and urchins in coastal waters stretching from Alaska to San Diego. What’s so alarming about sea star wasting syndrome: a healthy colony can die within 24 hours of first showing symptoms.

That morning at Fitzgerald, the children arrived excited to visit the tidepools. They were amazed by the beautiful vistas from the bluff. For some, this was the first time they had ever seen the ocean. Imagine!

Down on the reef together, the students discovered their first ochre sea star curled around a crab leg. They could barely contain their glee. The sea star appeared healthy. A volunteer and I looked closely for signs of disease, but saw none. We told the children that many sea stars in California are sick and no one knows exactly why.

Given more teaching time, there’s more we can say. We can teach about the crucial role of sea stars within their ecological community. Sea stars are a top predator in tide pools; they eat mussels, barnacles, and sea snails. We can point out that when sea stars or any species die in large numbers, their ecological communities change dramatically. And we can explain why it’s important to do all we can to promote the health of species and ecosystems everywhere, because they are all connected, even to us. Especially to us.


For more resources on sea star wasting syndrome, click here.


“Mystery Disease Causes Sea Star Die-Off Along West Coast.” KPBS, Susan Murphy. 24 Dec. 2013.

“The starfish are dying, and no one knows why.” USA Today, Elizabeth Weise. 31 Dec. 2013.

Photo by the author