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Decimated by disease, sunflower sea stars may get federal protections

Some 90% of sunflower sea stars in the Pacific have perished from disease — likely being driven by climate change — since 2013.

SAN FRANCISCO (CN) — While Sebastian the crab may have tried to convince Ariel that life under the sea was better than anything on the surface, it’s been anything but for the world’s sea stars. The multilimbed echinoderms — many may know them better as starfish — have been struggling, in some cases barely hanging on. Now they may get some needed protection.

The National Marine Fisheries Service on Wednesday proposed to protect the sunflower sea star as threatened under the Endangered Species Act following a petition filed by the Tucson, Arizona-based Center for Biological Diversity.

Sunflower sea stars have been particularly hard hit by disease. The massive creatures — measuring as much as a meter from tip to tip — have been struck hard by sea star wasting syndrome, a mysterious disease that literally lays waste to the animals, killing them in as little as three days. In 2013 and 2014, sea stars along the Pacific coast of North America experienced a massive die-off as a result and have continued to suffer at lower levels since then.

“Similar die-offs occurred in the 1970s, 80s, and 90s, but never before at this magnitude and over such a wide geographic area,” according to information from the Multi-Agency Rocky Intertidal Network — or MARINe — a consortium of research organizations working to collect compatible data in a centralized database.

The outbreak, according to the Center for Biological Diversity, “is considered one of the largest marine epidemics, causing massive sea star mortality along the West Coast.”

Scientists estimate that 90% of sunflower sea stars in the Pacific have been decimated by the disease since 2013, which they believe is being driven by climate change. Spiking ocean temperatures only exacerbate the problem.

“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.”

Voracious predators, sunflower sea stars — which can have as many as 24 arms — patrol the kelp forests along the coasts, chowing down on sea urchins which can overgraze the forests. Populations of sea urchins have in recent years ballooned, and have consumed some 95% of the underwater forests along the coast of California.

With their natural predators under attack by the wasting disease, urchins have been having a field day. In some places, such as the Channel Islands off the coast of Southern California, sunflower sea stars have been virtually wiped out. Their numbers are declining rapidly throughout much of their habitat, which stretches from Alaska to Baja California.

“A review of all population surveys estimated a decline of 90.6% since the 2013 sea star wasting disease outbreak, with an estimated 6,350,835,461 individuals pre-decline and 80,627,721 mature individuals in 2019,” according to the center’s petition to the fisheries service.

If the petition is successful, adding the sea stars to the list of threatened species will help reduce threats from water pollution, dredging, shoreline armoring and other coastal development projects which could push the creatures even closer to extinction, said Sakashita.

Such a move would help ensure that federal activities, or those under federal permits, would need to go through consultation with the fisheries service. In turn those consultations can result in measures to minimize harm to sunflower sea stars.

“So for example, let’s say a dredging project in sea star habitat might engage in efforts to relocate sea stars before dredging or compensatory habitat enhancement elsewhere, for example in cold-water refuges,” Sakashita said.

The National Marine Fisheries Service is requesting public comments on the listing for the next 60 days and will finalize the listing in a year.

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