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Sunflower sea star population dwindles off West Coast

An adult sunflower sea star
Photo provided by Janna Nichols
Pacific Northwest Scuba
An adult sunflower sea star

An epidemic that started in 2013 has decimated 95% of sunflower sea stars. Among the largest sea stars in the world, the species’ influence on the ocean ecosystem has dwindled due to sea star wasting disease.

Steven Rumrill is the Shellfish Program Leader for the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife. Alongside 26 other authors, Rumrill has put together a “roadmap to recovery” for the sunflower starfish population.

“Quite a bit of research, trying to sort that out," he said. "Some evidence (points) to a particular type of virus known as a densovirus that is passed from one individual to another. And other evidence (points) to the disruption of the microbial communities right at the skin water interface.”

Also affected by this decline is the kelp-eating sea urchin, the sunflower sea star’s prey. Sea urchin populations have risen rapidly and endangered West Coast kelp forests.

The federal government is expected to rule on whether or not to list sunflower sea stars on the Endangered Species Act next year.

Jasmine Lewin was a freelance reporter in 2022 and 2023. Originally from Portland, Oregon, Lewin wrote for the University of Oregon quarterly magazine Ethos before graduating with a bachelor’s degree in journalism.
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