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Sunflower Sea Stars of Oregon / Washington Coast Listed as Endangered

Published 12/11/20 at 5:55 PM PDT - Updated 12/11/20 at 5:56 PM PDT
By Oregon Coast Beach Connection staff


(Portland, Oregon) – One lowly but fanciful starfish of the Oregon and Washington coast – in particular the sunflower sea star – has been listed as endangered by one international entity following an Oregon State University study. The categorization of endangered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) does not mean an officially recognized status by the U.S. government, but it could mean such designation in the future. (Sunflower sea star above courtesy OSU/Janna Nichols)

It does not mean other types of sea stars are in this category quite yet.

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Oregon State University and The Nature Conservancy led the study, which found the sunflower sea star, known scientifically as Pycnopodia helianthoides, to be on the brink of extinction. Almost a decade of sea star wasting syndrome has taken its toll on the populations of the colorful invertebrate, causing OSU’s lead researcher on the study, Sarah Gravem, to say: “Unfortunately, your chances of finding one now are next to nothing in most of the contiguous United States.”

According to the study, populations of the sunflower sea star plummeted after the epidemic started back in 2013.

“Sunflower sea stars are now nearly absent in Mexico as well as the contiguous United States, the scientists say,” OSU said in a press release. “No stars have been seen in Mexico since 2016, none in California since 2018, and only a handful in Oregon and Washington since 2018.”

Jessica Jones, volunteer coordinator for Oregon coast environmental group CoastWatch, said there have been some sea star recoveries here on the Oregon coast, but it’s been sporadic. There are places where some recovery of the species is apparently happening, and others where it’s not.


“We’ve found there’s no pattern to these areas, either,” she told Oregon Coast Beach Connection.

In some rocky areas, they’ve found plenty of baby sea stars, what is called juvenile recruitment. However, it’s hard to know what that will mean in terms of actual recovery since the sea stars take a long time to grow, and experts will have to wait and see how many survive.

Other spots on the coast show more devastation of the disease and a distinct lack of them. Observers are still finding plenty of sick baby sea stars and die-offs, Jones said.

In the study, scientists used more than 61,000 population surveys from 31 datasets to calculate a 90.6% decline in the sunflower sea stars and estimated that as many as 5.75 billion animals died from the disease, whose cause has not been determined.

Jones reiterated that the disease itself is still a great mystery. Yet one big factor still looms largest among them all.

“It all still has to come down to warming oceans,” Jones said.

The listing of sunflower sea stars in the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species brings more attention to the creatures’ plight and the possibilities of conservation action and policy decision-making.

Jones said there are five major areas on this coastline where sea stars are being studied, but Oregon officials and CoastWatch could use more eyes on them in other places. This is where citizen participation comes in.

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CoastWatch is encouraging people on the beaches to conduct their own citizen surveys of sea stars. You can find out how at this link. (More sea stars below)








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