Ex­perts fear ar­rival of starfish dis­ease

The New Zealand Herald - - NEWS -

Jamie Mor­ton

Beach­go­ers are be­ing asked to keep an eye out for sick-look­ing starfish, amid con­cerns a dis­ease rav­aging the marine an­i­mals over­seas could also be lurk­ing here.

Mil­lions of starfish on the west coast of North Amer­ica have sea-star wast­ing dis­ease, or SSWD, which be­gins with curled limbs and le­sions, and ends with the loss of arms, de­fla­tion and death.

It has af­fected more than 20 starfish species and has been found from Alaska to Baja Cal­i­for­nia — mak­ing it the largest-ever ob­served in­ci­dence of marine dis­ease.

Here, the Univer­sity of Auck­land’s Pro­fes­sor Mary Sewell and As­so­ciate Pro­fes­sor Ian Hew­son, an SSWD ex­pert from New York’s Cor­nell Univer­sity, have been check­ing for it in three main New Zealand starfish — the reef starfish, at Piha, and the eleven-armed star and com­mon cush­ion star, near Leigh.

Hew­son said that although SSWD had also been found in China and Aus­tralia’s Port Phillip Bay, its cause was not fully un­der­stood.

“How­ever, we be­lieve it may be re­lated to in­fec­tion by a virus, abrupt swings in water tem­per­a­ture or pre­cip­i­ta­tion, or a com­bi­na­tion,” Hew­son said. “Since wa­ters of the Tas­man Sea and sur­rounds have been anoma­lously warm over the last few months, it is pos­si­ble that wast­ing may oc­cur in New Zealand — so hav­ing eyes out there to re­port the dis­ease is cru­cial for our un­der­stand­ing of causal­ity.”

Sewell said there had so far been one sus­pected case in New Zealand.

Peo­ple who spot­ted sus­pected cases were asked to send de­tails to m.sewell@auck­land.ac.nz or hew­son@cor­nell.edu, or to the SSWD — New Zealand Face­book page at bit.ly/2EqWPKK.

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