Three Reasons Why Fukushima Radiation Has Nothing to Do with Starfish Wasting Syndrome

This invited post is authored by Chris Mah, a Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History researcher.    Chris is one of the world’s leading experts on starfish and echinoderms in general.  He created and writes for Echinoblog, a one stop reading place for everything echinoderm. You can find him at Twitter at @echinoblog.

In September 2013, I broke the story about a mass sunflower starfish (Pycnopodia helianthoides) die-off in British Columbia. This developed into further accounts of Starfish Wasting ‘disease’ which is now recognized as “Starfish Wasting Syndrome” (because the nature of the causative agent is unknown) and since been reported from California and now Washington state.

The “disease” causes white lesions and tissue necrosis (death and decomposition), eventually resulting in arm loss and overall body collapse (the “wasting” part of the disease’s name). The disease has been observed in multiple starfish species but seems to have been noticed most heavily in sunflower starfish (Pycnopodia helianthoides) and ochre stars (Pisaster ochraceus).

Some have become concerned that there is a direct influence from Fukushima. Much of this seems unlikely.  Deep-Sea News (among many other sources) have presented excellent reviews of data that can help the rational person make sense from some of the confusing deluge of misinformation.

Here, I continue this theme. Addressing a concern that has been brought up by many. But really, three simple observations discount any direct relationship….

  1. Starfish Wasting Disease/Syndrome (SWD/SWS) pre-Dates Fukushima by 3 to 15 years. This is probably the most self-evident of reasons. One of the earliest accounts of starfish wasting disease was recorded from Southern California (Channel Islands) in 1997 (pdf).  The account of SWS in British Columbia was first documented by Bates et al. in 2009, and their data was collected in 2008.  Fukushima? March 2011.
  2. Starfish Wasting Syndrome Occurs on the East Coast as well as the Pacific. Many of the accounts alleging a Fukushima connection to Starfish Wasting Syndrome forget that there are also accounts of SWS on the east coast of the United States affecting the asteriid Asterias rubens. There is no evidence (or apparent mechanism) for Fukushima radiation to have reached the east coast and therefore the Fukushima idea is again not supported.
  3. No other life in these regions seems to have been affected. If we watch the original British Columbia Pycnopodia die-off videos, and the later Washington state die-off vidoes, one cannot help but notice that other than the starfish, EVERYTHING else remains alive. Fish. Seaweed, encrusting animals. etc.

the WA video

A survey of Washington state released recently. Note the sea anemones, algae, and crabs. All in apparent good health.


Viewing ANY of the pictures or videos from other accounts shows that only the sea stars are affected.  If there were waves of Fukushima radiation pouring onto the coast-and “melting” all the starfish as some folks would suggest, EVERYTHING would be dead. Not just the sea stars. Note also that all the divers involved in these surveys have reported NO ill effects.

Unfortunately, we have no data on the actual agent that causes SWS. Within the grand realm of possibility there is always a (slim?) possibility there is a connection with Fukushima, but nothing we’ve seen gives us any reason to think that.

More Likely Reasons?

Speculation has suggested bacterial or viral sources. But invertebrate diseases can be complicated. The disease only seems to affect sea stars. Nothing else.  This implies a biological cause with a very specific relationship. Possibly a bacteria or virus. But just as possibly some other type of infection resulting from a protist or fungi?

It also seems possible that it could be a disease similar to coral bleaching, where subcuticular bacteria of sea stars (as documented here)  might be affected adversely. Or perhaps a combination? In conjunction with some environmental change, such as water temperature?  The original series of papers by Amanda Bates indicated there was an association of the diseae with water temperature.

Our study of this event has just begun. Ongoing data collection and research have started. We shall see where it takes us…

62 Replies to “Three Reasons Why Fukushima Radiation Has Nothing to Do with Starfish Wasting Syndrome”

  1. Thanks for this article. The recent USA Today story said that sea urchins and sea cucumber are also affected. Even if it is bacterial, as some researchers are now saying, they are asking, Why are their immune systems collapsing to make them so vulnerable in the first place?

  2. The author, however qualified, has gone beyond the slim facts with the title of his post, which unfortunately opens him up to the charge of scientific hubris. Clearly, a more accurate title would have been “Three Reasons Why Fukushima Radiation Most Likely Has Nothing To Do With …” or ” … Probably Has Nothing To Do With ..,” or “Three Reasons Why My Best Very Preliminary Guess Is That …” Right?

  3. I’m sure starfish are tougher than others when it comes to radiation, but, they are bottom feeders and probably collect it faster into their systems than others. By the way, I’d like to see those articles about this disease being around before the disaster, please.

  4. Epidemiologically, are not the factors you have raised direct evidence of the impact of potassium/caesium and Calcium/Strontium ionic replacement? Four points:

    1. Perhaps more so than any other sea creature, K and Ca are the critical minerals for starfish. Starfish have complex K and Ca exchange, uptake and shedding mechanisms.

    2. Sr and Cs are notorious Ca and K emulators respectively.

    3. A single Sr90 or Cs137 atom resident in a starfish for a few days would release enough energy to create soft tissue trauma (mutative effects inclusive). Biological response? Uptake K to attempt a heal, and more K to attempt to shed the damaged arm. Effect? More potential Cs and Sr intake. What happens when the starfish gets multiplicitous shed messages from 10-20 atomic trauma centres throughout its whole body? It melts.

    3. Sr and Cs are found in trace levels in every one of the places that SWS is now occuring, and have been for a number of years now. This is as a direct consequence of the US Government nuclear policies, and its shoddy and slipshod waste management practices. Sure, Fukushima is a slow moving toxic tidal wave, and you haven’t even started to see the true effects. But the killer genie was out of the bottle years ago.

    4. Go and run some tests. Get relatively pure water from the deep South Pacific, and healthy starfish from the same region. Put a sick starfish in with the healthy ones. Then try adding some radioactive isotopes at trace levels. Break the story.

  5. And radiation does what to the immune system? So if the disease predates Fukushima, and then the immune system starts breaking down, you don’t think it may proloferate faster? Kinda like Chernobyl, you could say that the 500 fold increase in pneumonia cases around the world, one could say that there was no connection because pneumonia predates Chernobyl? Really!! Where is my cool aid!!

  6. Thanks for this well-reasoned post. An investigation based on data and analysis is what’s called for. You said this syndrome occurs on the east coast in A rubens; do you mean currently, or in the past?

  7. 1. While wasting syndrome may predate Fukushima, the sea star die off May still be because of Fukushima. There has never been a die off this massive of over 10 sea star species before. Ever. You forgot to mention that fact.

    2. Again, east coast SWS is probably not related to what’s happening in the Pacific. Just because the sea stars appear to have the same symptoms doesn’t mean they are wasting from the same causes.

    3. Herring are acting peculiar which is affecting whales, dolphins, orcas, ect. Alaska and BC salmon are at all time lows not attributable to fishing.

    Sea stars are a indicator species which means when they disappear there is something seriously wrong with the ecosystem. Something is happening in the Pacific that isn’t happening in the Atlantic, yet.

  8. The title of the article shouts “minimize, marginalize, downplay”…I’m not sure what science you study, but in my five decades of direct observation of nature, I see everything as interconnected. Nothing exists or occurs in isolation. So the title disingenuously employs hyperbole to tamp down any alarm about Fukushima. If starfish wasting syndrome existed before the Fukushima disaster, that doesn’t mean it’s not a factor in lowering the immunity of these creatures today. Similarly for the east coast comparison (where there is plenty of toxicity affecting life). My hypothesis is that the starfish are an indicator species, like amphibians, and bees which are rapidly disappearing around the globe, due to a complex chain of toxic exposure. The author of this article gives science a bad name when he uses his position, making large assumptions to support his agenda.

  9. Number three is a huge and unsupported assumption:

    “No other life in these regions seems to have been affected. If we watch the original British Columbia Pycnopodia die-off videos, and the later Washington state die-off vidoes, one cannot help but notice that other than the starfish, EVERYTHING else remains alive. Fish. Seaweed, encrusting animals. etc.”

    Umm – so you’ve been able to check the DNA of all the creatures in the sea and confirm that radiation which is now hitting the West Coast hasn’t caused breaks in the DNA chains? Or that the immune systems of sea creatures has not been affected?

  10. So perhaps this points to other little known “exposures ” to low level radioactive water leaks that have not met with much interest. Fact radioactive water was stored and did leak from said storage site for years into the Columbia River . Question was this toxic factored into Dr. M’s study? Now I will reserve judgement as to the ability to include into the scope of study people however decorated with paper the ability to quantify the REAL set of facts pertinent to any given study ……such is life.

  11. RE: “If there were waves of Fukushima radiation pouring onto the coast-and “melting” all the starfish as some folks would suggest, EVERYTHING would be dead”.

    I read a study by the US military that states that phyto- plankton can concentrate radioactivity about 1000 times as much as other species. I also read that due to the minerals that make up starfish, they also take a more severe damage from plutonium, uranium, strontium, etc. It seems that increased radiation might cause a problem somewhere in the ecosystem, are you saying that people are stupid, ignorant, or conspiracy theorizing, just to say maybe it is a first sign, this unprecedented, pandemic stretching the entire west coast across many species of starfish?

  12. Also, are you aware of radiation readings on California beaches reading 3 times background radiation? Someone posted a you tube video showing his geiger counter readings as he took them?

  13. “The severity of signs and symptoms of radiation sickness depends on how much radiation you’ve absorbed. How much you absorb depends on the strength of the radiated energy and the distance between you and the source of radiation. Signs and symptoms also are affected by the type of exposure — such as total or partial body and whether contamination is internal or external — and how sensitive to radiation the affected tissue is. For instance, the gastrointestinal system and bone marrow are highly sensitive to radiation.” —Mayo Clinic radiation sickness webpage. Diarrhea, Headache, Fever, Weakness, fatigue, Hair loss, bloody vomit and stools, infections, poor wound healing, low blood pressure are signs of radiation poisoning. —Mayo Clinic

    These symptoms occurred before March, 2011. So, by your logic, they cannot be signs of radiation sickness

  14. Ever? We’ve only been monitoring sea stars for a relatively short period of time. Even then, perhaps there is evidence in the scientific literature. Digging through 100 years of research is no small task.

  15. If you want to test your hypothesis, maybe in a controlled experiment, that’d be great. But right now the burden is on YOU to demonstrate that your hypothesis is backed up. The null hypothesis is always assumed to be true, until proven otherwise.

  16. Also, the die-offs I witnessed on the east coast were massive and horrible. Thousands of sea stars stretch as far as the eye could see in all directions. I was amazed at the lack of attention this received at the time.

  17. Note that the researcher listed in this “article” also host these SWS website. Their official stance includes this text

    “he proximal cause of the disease, when pathological studies have been done, is typically a bacterium (vibrio), although a recent wasting event on the east coast of the United States has been attributed to a virus. The ultimate cause is not clear although such events are often associated with warmer than typical water temperatures as was the case for the major die off in southern California in 1983-1984 and again (on a lesser scale) in 1997-98. Following the 1983-1984 event, the ochre star, Pisaster ochraceus, was virtually absent along southern California shorelines for years.”

  18. Mike, I recently did a series of dives off Monterey, CA. I only say the starfish being affected. Sea cucumbers and urchins appeared to be fine.

    To your second question, why only a viral/bacterial outbreak for starfish is occurring remains an open and interesting question.

  19. We adhere to Occam’s Razor's_razor

    We have lined the facts up, and they are not thin, and come to the only scientifically valid conclusion. SWS has nothing to do with radiation from Fukushima. This would of course require there being any evidence of any measurable Fukishima radiation the west coast…which there is not.

  20. Bruce, there are many other organisms in these coastal systems that are bottom feeders. These should also be showing some effect but are not.

  21. “Perhaps more so than any other sea creature, K and Ca are the critical minerals for starfish.” Other organisms, like molluscs, are just as reliant on both K and Ca. Indeed both are required for proper neural control. During my dives in Monterey, where I witnessed SWS, I also saw multiple cephalpods, arguably the most advanced invertebrate with regard to neurological processes. I saw no evidence of disease, slowed response, or affected behaviors.

  22. “Now I will reserve judgement as to the ability to include into the scope of study people however decorated with paper the ability to quantify the REAL set of facts pertinent to any given study”

    I am not sure why people choose to vilify experts. When my car is broken, I visit a mechanic. I need a great cut of beef, I visit a butcher. I need workout advice…a trainer. I respect these people’s dedication, training, and service to gain expertise in particular area.

    When I want to know what is killing off starfish…I as one of the world’s leading experts on starfish.

  23. I’ve seen youtube videos where people have tried to convince me that this is the case. Unfortunately these people have the sensitively really high on a Geiger counter, don’t use it properly, and provide any baseline measurements. Even if it was high, and that’s a big if, then there is no way a Gieger counter could link this radiation to Fukushima.

  24. Jack- I think this is a great question!! Thanks for asking it. I do not know if there have been any studies yet on how these factors play into SWS. However, I can imagine if these factors are influencing the bacterial/viral communities then perhaps they might be playing a role. Those conditions could also be causing stress to the organism it self making it more susceptible. Sounds like an experiment needs to be done to me.

  25. There is nothing in these posts that discusses the current from Japan to the West Coast of the US and whether these would support the die off moving from north to south which seems to be the case. Has anyone looked at the path of the radioactivity from Japan to the West Coast?

  26. Thanks for a good article. The only quibble I have is it would have been useful to link to earlier research in the article (ie the Maine starfish debacle in 2011). You show great patience as people who want to believe this won’t listen to any reason and make a mish mash of good science. Global warming and climate change is too scary to face, whether monarchs or starfish or the possibility of a mass extinction. So much safer to blame Fukushima and radiation and then be mad at the supposedly venal lying experts rather than listen to the warnings about tipping points and prior mass extinctions from good scientists.

  27. I’d like one of these geniuses to explain why the hills around where I live in Southern California have not turned green for two years when they turned green twice a year as long as I can remember. Maybe you can also explain away why the California poppies which once flourished in the spring have not bloomed since the Fukushima event. The hills around me look burnt, like a fire has gone through but where no fire has been and more so on the west facing slopes than the east facing. I’m no expert, but I am an honor graduate from the US Armies Nuclear, Biological, and Chemical Warfare School. To say that no harmful radiation is reaching the west coast is nothing but a farce. There has also been a 26% increase in infant hypothyroidism as reported by channel 5 news in San Diego. Any explanations? Then maybe you can also explain why the 3 out of 4 brothers of my girlfriend that surfed Tresles, the break adjacent to the San Onofre NPP have developed some sort of cancer. Don’t even go for the hereditary alibi as no one in her family has ever had cancer….I welcome your feedback, it should be interesting.

  28. Starfish wasting disease commonly occurs in aquarium-held starfish that cannot possibly have been exposed to Fukushima radiation. It is typically caused by an assortment of Vibrio bacteria species and can be treated successfully with antibiotics.

    I don’t know how anyone can argue with the fact that even the wild epizootic pre-dates the Fukushima event. That’s pretty much a case closed on radiation as a primary cause.

  29. If this were true, I would expect to see massive molt failure in all calcified crustaceans as well, because the calcium flux of newly molted crabs and lobsters is about as dynamic as it gets. But thats not what we see. A more parsimonious explanation is a widespread Vibrio epizootic.

  30. Who’s to say that there has not been other radiation leaks into the ocean that were never reported before the Fukushima event? Without a control group, I think it’s just all a SWAG…scientific wild a– guess. The real fact is that you all don’t know if the radiation leaks are causing the die off or not. Iodine levels in the kelp beds off Southern California have increased enough to raise enough interest to explore effects in other sea life. To completely rule out that FuKushima is having an effect on the starfish is nonsense. The reality, even with all the speculation, is that nobody really knows. What is known is that it takes years for the harmful effects of radiation to surface. It’s estimated that low levels of the leaks into the ocean from Japan won’t reach California until March 2014. Since the harmful effects and severity of nuclear accidents is always covered up, who’s to say that the radiation in the ocean hasn’t already arrived and 10 years down the road when/if the Pacific ocean becomes a dead zone, all the scientists that are nay sayers now, won’t be post comments like 3 reasons why they were wrong.

  31. Do you realize how many radioactive isotopes from un-natural sources has already contaminated water all over the country? Cities in central Texas can’t recycle water pipes because the radiation in those pipes from ground water is too high. That contamination didn’t come from Fukushima.

  32. I barely know where to start with that. First its Fukushima, then its other leaks before Fukushima, then Fukushima radiation won’t arrive until March 2014, then it’s a cover up. C’mon, you can do better. Read carefully to see again what it is that we are saying: there is little to no direct evidence that starfish wasting is Fukushima-related, and a great deal of other evidence that it is most likely to be an infectious disease outbreak, one that predates Fukushima by a significant period.

    I don’t expect to convince you, as you seem to be well in the grips of the Backfire Effect

  33. It is specifically the shedding mechanisms for starfish (which are associated with K uptake by the organism) which make them vulnerable.

    The concentrations of Cs isotopes in the water may be too low to observe (yet) noticeable effects in molluscs and crustacea.

    The tests are easy enough to do. Get some healthy starfish, add some Cs isotopes to the water, and see if they melt. Then you can add that to the list of evidence.

  34. Are the analogues between the chemical processes associated with limb shedding in starfish and moulting crabs that similar that you think the theory can be dismissed out of hand? We are dealing with different minerals for a start. As pointed out, I think the obvious culprit is Cesium rather than Strontium, because it is Potassium that is critical in limb shedding in starfish.

  35. Are there any other creatures in the affected environment that have shedding and regeneration processes based on K, like starfish do?

    You have to admit, everywhere that this disorder is manifesting itself has experienced a massive increase in levels of Cs in the water over the past 20 years.

    Fukushima has already doubled the amount of Cs137 released into the environment in all previous history. But a great deal was already there.


  36. I am puzzled by the finality of the conclusion, even though your points are well taken. Bacterial infection is a secondary result of some other factors stressing the organism. Vibrios are present all of the time, just not pathogenic all of the time. The quick solution is to do a survey along the coast of Japan. Thanks for the article.

  37. hello all, Im an artist, I don’t have a degree in Marine Biology so bare with me.

    1. Is it possible that the ionizing radiation could speed up a naturally occurring disease in starfish as with leukemia in humans?

    2. The cesium 137 has shown up in highest concentrations in Pennsylvania drinking water, so is it possible for starfish on the east coast could also be affected.

    3. Is is plausible to precieve that the starfish could be overly sensitive to cesium 137 and act as an environmental hazard indication instrument, the same way frogs have done for biologists on land?

    4. has scientific research ever been done on starfish and their exposure to ionizing radiation?
    Thank You

  38. Thank you Nicholas for addressing all of these questions from an educated and unbiased perspective. This approach seems to be nearly absent from Internet discussions regarding health effects from nuclear radiation. I understand that the reason this is so is because of an agreement made between NRC and the WHO decades ago.

  39. I think people need to be educated about this in order to truly understand the enormity of the damage caused by nuclear radiation. Fukushima is not the only culprit, there are current disasters and disasters in the making all of the world. And, as previously indicated, we are all interconnected through our global resources. I would like to suggest, for laypersons who are looking for a basic understanding of how all of this radiation impacts human health, check out Dr. Helen Caldicott’s presentation on Fukushima given at the Peace Action’s 31st Annual Event in Concord, NH and the 2003 short documentary “Chernobyl Heart”, both available on youtube.

  40. Tom,

    The San Francisco beaches ARE higher than background elsewhere. The video only shows the readings NOW!! They do NOT show the readings from 5 years ago!! There are areas of the world that have background radiation levels higher than Japanese or US environmental allowances.

    The cliffs behind the Beach house contain an old WW II and Cold War titanium mine. the dark sands there are due to titanium. Wanna take a stab at what else is natural to that area that might be causing the elevated background level that is still totally SAFE???

    No, I am not going to give you the answer. You need to learn to INVESTIGATE claims such as this as to their actual content.

    Another excellent example of this continuous alarmism is Chemtrails. One of their claims is that aluminum in the soil is a definite indicator of chemtrails as alumimum does not occur naturally. It took me less than five minutes on the internet to find that Ag colleges teach how to counteract natural aluminum soil contamination that is endemic in many parts of the world!!!

  41. Lyle M,

    I live in Los Angeles County about 25 miles from the Long Beach. What happens in your immediate area should be WORSE getting closer to the source of the radiation. As there are no reports of this the logical conclusion is that whatever you are observing has NOTHING to do with Fukushima, or Starfishes.

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