Staff at Oregon Coast Aquarium in Newport, Ore., have developed a treatment plan for sea star wasting syndrome, a deadly set of symptoms that have decimated sea star populations.

Sea star wasting syndrome caused a mass die-off of sea stars along the Pacific Coast in 2013 and 2014. Near-unidentifiable gelatinous bulks, the remnants of stars having fallen to wasting, littered the seafloor. One of Oregon’s keystone species, the sunflower sea star, was decimated and is now critically endangered.

There is no known cure for sea star wasting syndrome, but thanks to the efforts of Aquarium staff, there is now an effective treatment. Over the last two years, Aquarist Tiffany Rudek worked to develop a reliable method of treating ill, injured, or stressed sea stars. The treatment was the difference between life and death for many of the stars under her care.

Rudek partnered closely with Sea Jelly Specialist Evonne Mochon Collura to refine the treatment and submit the formal plan. In sharing their treatment plan, other researchers may repeat the protocol to prevent wasting in their collections.

The method involves supporting the star’s immune system instead of treating myriad bacterial factors and applies to physical injuries and wasting symptoms.

When stars show symptoms at the Aquarium, such as skin lesions and twisted limbs, Rudek takes them to her lab for treatment. The stars are placed into a cold-water holding area, and a buffer containing specific trace elements is applied. They are given an invertebrate-specific probiotic to prevent harmful bacteria growth and secondary infection and undergo medicated baths to remove opportunistic parasites and fungi.

Person looking at sea star in tank

The process is completed and repeated to create a low-stress environment for the stars and an unwelcoming environment for harmful bacteria and parasites.

So far, this method has proven successful with 17 sea stars of varying species, including the Aquarium’s three sunflower sea stars.

“Tiffany’s thinking is out-of-the-box, and that’s exactly what we needed,” said Collura. “She had the tenacity and creativity to develop the method until it worked, and now we have over two dozen stars saved and counting.”

Rudek and Collura will continue trialing the method and collaborating with other labs and sea star working groups. While the trial is in its early stages, and the sample size is relatively small, Aquarium staff are optimistic about these very promising results.

Rudek is looking forward to the treatment’s impact on other facilities: “We opted to share this method because not sharing didn’t feel right,” she said. “There are sea stars dying rapidly, and what we’ve developed is working—there’s a chance it could help so many people and so many stars.”

Photo Credit: © Oregon Coast Aquarium

Edited by Sarah Gilsoul, a writer and communications program assistant at AZA

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