Billions of the big starfish have died from disease; could be listed by next year
By Kirsten Dobroth at KMXT/Kodiak
May 4, 2023
Earlier this year, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration proposed listing the sunflower sea star as threatened under the Endangered Species Act. The proposal comes as disease has wiped out billions of sea stars from California up the western coast to the Aleutians in Alaska. Now, the agency is asking for public comment ahead of its decision.
Sea star wasting syndrome is one nasty bug. When it infects a sunflower sea star – one of the largest kinds of sea stars – it causes blister-like lesions and the creature’s legs to fall off, killing the animal within 72 hours. What’s left behind is essentially a pile of goo where it disintegrated.
“And then the ocean currents carry that goo away, and within 10 days or two weeks you might have absolutely nothing remaining of the animal,” said Sadie Wright, a protected resource biologist with NOAA.
She said the mortality rate is 90% in some areas of the sunflower sea star’s range, spanning from southern California out to southwestern Alaska. And billions of sea stars have died from the disease in the last decade, bringing the animal’s population down to an estimated 600 million. Wright said the sunflower sea star is a main predator of sea urchins, and that declines in the sea star’s population could have a ripple effect across the ecosystem.
NOAA received a petition back in 2021 to protect the animal under the Endangered Species Act. In March, the agency announced it was proposing to list the species as threatened in response. And now, it’s gathering public comments as part of a review process that will decide whether the sunflower sea star will ultimately be listed as threatened or not.
Wright said the agency is hoping to fill in data gaps about the species, particularly in the waters off Alaska’s coastline.
“We have some data,” she said. “We have really good time series data in a couple of places, but it would be great to get a broader perspective.”
Wright was in Kodiak on Tuesday, May 2 for a public hearing about the species as part of NOAA’s review. About a dozen people attended – another dozen called in to the meeting. Some fishermen said they noticed a dip in the population a few years ago. Recently though, more healthy-looking animals have been coming up on their gear.
Wright says that fits with other reports NOAA has received from the area so far.
“It does sound like Kodiak is having a relatively strong recovery of sunflower sea stars and that definitely, I think, gives us reason to be hopeful,” said Wright.
Researchers don’t know exactly what causes sea star wasting syndrome, but Wright said they don’t believe it’s related to fishing activities. Take, which includes bycatch under the Endangered Species Act’s definition, would not be prohibited under the proposed threatened listing.
If NOAA ultimately lists the species as threatened, the agency would perform a five-year review to determine whether the species was in recovery, or if it warranted further protection – like an endangered listing – which would mandate another formal review process. The agency could also be petitioned to perform a status review before the five-year mark.
Longliners and fishermen using pot gear most commonly encounter the sea stars. Wright said anyone can submit information – or input on the process – and it’s all helpful. Photo submissions are even better.
“We’re asking people going forward if they could provide a measurement from the center of the animal’s body out to the tip of its longest arm,” Wright said.
Members of the public can submit comments to NOAA through May 15.
If the agency issues a threatened listing, the soonest it would go into effect would be March of next year.