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Starfish population resurges after major die-off

After a major die-off in 2013, starfish in Southern California have found new life under the sea.

The fish, also called sea stars because they are not actually fish but rather echinoderms, suffered from a mysterious virus named Sea Star Wasting Syndrome, of which scientists have yet to find a cause. The disease killed millions of starfish of varying species, mostly along the West Coast of the United States.

There were similar die-offs in the ’70s, ’80s, and ’90s, but none were as bad as the 2013-14 ravaging of the starfish population from Canada all the way down to Mexico.

“They are coming back, big time,” said Darryl Deleske, aquarist for the Cabrillo Marine Aquarium in San Pedro, told the Orange County Register.

“It’s a huge difference … A couple of years ago, you wouldn’t find any. I drove all the way as far as Canada, specifically looking for sea stars, and found not a single one.”

Starfish suffering from the disease have white lesions, followed by decaying tissue surrounding the lesions, and the arms may begin to stretch, twist and/or tear off, after which the starfish dies.

The disease is transmittable from one starfish to another, helping the epidemic spread. While there is still no known cause, warmer waters because of global warming is thought to have played a role — starfish thrive best in cooler water temperatures.

But now, where there were none to be found, sea stars are once again being spotted in Southern California tide pools and other places along the coast. Many are still hand-sized, but scientists are hopeful that the bigger stars, which can grow up to 20 inches, will thrive to their large sizes again.

The wasting disease is still prevalent along the coast where the sea stars are reappearing, but scientists at Cabrillo Aquarium are continuing to do research to understand the mysterious virus and offer treatment.

“(The treated starfish) don’t seem to be dying like they used to,” Deleske said. “We’ve seen some good results.”

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