Federal protections could help save sunflower sea stars
These sea stars are keystone species in Pacific, and may now be federally protected under the Endangered Species Act
Sea stars, particularly sunflower sea stars, are keystone species in the Pacific Northwest. They can grow over twenty limbs and span over a meter across.
Historically, large populations of them inhabited coastal waters and tidepools, they used to be one of the most abundant sea star species along the Pacific coast, and are widely recognizable by their size and color.
In recent years, warming seas fueled by climate change has exacerbated Sea Star Wasting Syndrome, which causes sea stars to dissolve. It’s gotten so bad that their populations are just of fraction of what they used to be. Estimates suggest that recent outbreaks of the pathogen that causes Sea Star Wasting Syndrome have reduced their populations to just 10% compared to historic levels.
As a species, these sea stars are critically important and effective predators for purple sea urchins, which if unregulated, destroy kelp beds that serve as massive carbon sinks in a warming world, and as habitat for species like Dungeness crab and octopus. Without kelp, ecosystems all along the Pacific Coast would collapse, making it a priority for these sea stars to make a comeback.
Earlier this week, officials from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) submitted a proposal to federally list the sunflower sea star under the Endangered Species Act. If approved, the “threatened” designation would give this species additional protections to improve their population numbers over time.
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