An annual survey is held at Willow Point Reef to document sea stars and check them for signs of sea star wasting syndrome. Photo courtesy Discovery Passage Aquarium.

An annual survey is held at Willow Point Reef to document sea stars and check them for signs of sea star wasting syndrome. Photo courtesy Discovery Passage Aquarium.

Discovery Aquarium holding annual sea star survey this weekend

Surveys held each year to document signs of sea star wasting disease to better understand disease

The Discovery Passage Aquarium is holding its annual sea star survey this weekend, to help document and track the poorly understood phenomenon of sea star wasting syndrome.

This annual survey will be conducted on Saturday, July 24, starting at 12:30 p.m., with volunteers meeting at Jaycee Park in Willow Point, Campbell River. Participants will count and photograph sea stars on the reef and assess them for signs of sea star wasting syndrome, a disease afflicting sea stars throughout the Pacific Northwest.

“Sea star wasting is happening at the Willow Point Reef and all across the region,” explained Tatiana Misky, Discovery Passage Aquarium educator, who is running the survey. “It causes the sea starts to get lesions and it can be fatal to them — and certain things in the environment seem to amplify the disease, such as heat waves, which we just had.”

The survey protocol was launched in 2014 by researchers at the University of California after a large outbreak of the disease. But Scientists have been studying the issue since the 1970s and have found a cyclical pattern to the disease, with large outbreaks observed every five years or so, said Misky. But employees of the Discovery Passage have been seeing fewer instances of the disease this year, a positive sign for the species, she added.

The Discovery Passage Aquarium has been conducting the surveys since 2018. This year’s event will start with Misky explaining to participants the signs of moderate and severe wasting. Then volunteers will study five sites on the reef, inspecting sea stars for signs of the disease and ranking their condition as healthy, moderate, and severe.

The low-tide survey will focus on the ochre sea star (Pisaster ochraceus), which often appears orange or purplish. There are other sea stars in the area, including blood stars (Henricia leviuscula) and leather stars (Dermasterias imbricata), but they tend to be found lower in the tidal area and are therefore more difficult to assess, she explained. The impact of sea star wasting varies by species, with one of the most susceptible being the sunflower sea star (Pycnopodia helianthoides).

Those interested in participating in the survey may email volunteers@discoverypassageaquarium.ca. The aquarium is hoping to get around 10 volunteers involved, but if more show up, the survey area can be expanded. A few more surveys are also being planned for in August. Surveys can be done in the summer only, because in the winter, low tide is in the middle of the night.

The aquarium is also holding a beach clean up at Ken Forde Park on July 31 at 1 p.m.

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