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Oregon researchers develop new treatment for endangered sea stars

A sunflower sea star, Courtney Klug of the Oregon Coast Aquarium says is highly susceptible to Seastar Wasting Syndrome (SWSS).
Ed Bowlby
NOAA/Olympic Coast
A sunflower sea star. Courtney Klug of the Oregon Coast Aquarium says it is highly susceptible to Sea Star Wasting Syndrome (SWSS).

Oregon researchers have developed a new treatment for sea stars with a fatal disease.

The sunflower sea star is a keystone species that lives along the Pacific Coast, but it is critically endangered. That's because of Sea Star Wasting Syndrome (SWSS), which causes the animals to dissolve.

Courtney Klug is with the Oregon Coast Aquarium in Newport. She said rising sea temperatures have made the disease more common within the last decade.

“Our divers used to see sunflower sea stars on the coasts everywhere. They're massive. They're four feet across with 26 arms. But at the height of the wasting there were absolutely none.”

For this new treatment, researchers at the aquarium place a sea star in cold water, feed it probiotics and provide medicated baths. According to Klug, they’ve saved 17 specimens so far.

Klug said the state needs to protect sunflower sea stars, as they eat sea urchins. If urchin populations grow too large, they can destroy kelp beds that many other animals rely on for food.

Klug said the Aquarium’s staff is limited, but researchers up and down the coast can easily reproduce their methods.

She said the public should contact the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife if they spot symptoms of SWSS, which include white lesions and twisted arms.

Nathan Wilk joined the KLCC News Team in 2022. He is a graduate from the University of Oregon School of Journalism and Communication. Born in Portland, Wilk began working in radio at a young age, serving as a DJ and public affairs host across Oregon.