San Francisco Chronicle
Sunflower sea stars may get federal refuge
Sunflower sea stars, 20armed predators that once dominated the waters along the West Coast, may soon get federal protection under the Endangered Species Act in response to a 2021 petition from the Center for Biological Diversity.
The center petitioned the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to list the sea star as endangered, arguing that a listing would help protect one of the world’s biggest sea stars from threats such as water pollution, dredging, shoreline armoring and other coastal development projects.
NOAA on Wednesday said it is proposing listing the sunflower sea star, an action it said would signify that the species is likely to face the danger of extinction.
The endangered species act was passed in 1973 and provides conservation of threatened and endangered plants and animals as well as the habitats in which they live.
Sunflower sea stars were once known to live along shorelines from Southern California to southern Alaska, but between 2013 to 2017 a disease called “sea star wasting disease” killed 90% of their population. The outbreak is the largest marine disease outbreak on record, according to NOAA. Sea stars that contract the syndrome become lethargic, develop lesions, lose their arms, and within days disintegrate into gooey masses, officials said. According to the Center for Biological Diversity, sunflower sea stars are classified as critically endangered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature after nearly being wiped out by the disease.
However, northern waters may offer refuge to these multicolored creatures, NOAA said. Populations of sunflower sea stars appeared more viable in cooler waters to the north in Alaska, British Columbia and the Salish Sea.
“The science indicates that warmer temperatures and other stressors fueling disease are pushing this species towards an elevated risk of extinction,” said Chris Yates, assistant regional administrator for Protected Resources in NOAA Fisheries’ West Coast Region. “Listing the species as threatened may not stop the warming, but it does mean that we will look for ways to conserve the species where it still has a chance to survive as part of our rich coastal ecosystem.”
Described as “voracious” predators by the center, sunflower sea stars help play a pivotal part in maintaining coastal ecosystems by consuming sea urchins, which prevents the overgrazing of kelp forests. At the height of their existence before 2013, these sea stars were one of the most abundant and recognizable on the Pacific coast. But since 2017, the species has been rare south of Washington state and has almost vanished completely from Southern California shores, according to NOAA.
Sea star wasting disease has been exacerbated by climate change, the center said, with warmer oceans making the effects more severe and deadly for sunflower sea stars.
“Protection under the Endangered Species Act will be so important for reviving these incredible sea stars,” said Miyoko Sakashita, oceans program director at the center. “Disease fueled by climate change has devastated this gorgeous species, and these safeguards will help tackle threats to their survival and promote the health of the kelp forests they live in.”