MENDOCINO Co, CA, 3/21/23 — A familiar species Mendocino County residents will recognize as absent from our shores over the past decade could now be listed under the Endangered Species Act (ESA), the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) announced last week. The agency has proposed listing the sunflower sea star (Pycnopodia helianthoides) as “threatened”; public comment on the ruling will be open until May 15, after which point NOAA will make a final decision.
Scientists still don’t know precisely what caused the 2013 outbreak of Sea Star Wasting Syndrome that had dire consequences for sunflower stars, a 24-armed urchin predator the loss of which has contributed significantly to kelp decline in California, throwing underwater ecosystems out of whack. But rapid change in water temperature, decreased pH, and pollution are all potential contributing factors.
“The science indicates that warmer temperatures and other stressors fueling disease are pushing this species towards an elevated risk of extinction,” said Chris Yates, assistant regional administrator for protected resources in NOAA Fisheries’ West Coast Region, in a news release on the proposed ruling. “Listing the species as threatened may not stop the warming, but it does mean that we will look for ways to conserve the species where it still has a chance to survive as part of our rich coastal ecosystem.”
Transmitted both by physical contact and through water, the syndrome’s impacts on stars were grisly. Infected stars developed white lesions, lost the ends of their arms, and dissolved into goo in a matter of days.
Many local star species are rebounding after the syndrome, according to assessments conducted by The Noyo Center for Marine Science and The Nature Conservancy over the past year. But sunflower stars don’t seem to be resurging on their own. When professional urchin diver Grant Downie spotted just one in the subtidal zone in December 2022, it was big news for the Mendocino coast. Scientists estimate that sunflower stars saw population declines of between 80 and 100% across their habitat range, or some 7.75 billion stars, with the largest concentration surviving in the northern waters of Alaska and the Aleutian Islands.
Vienna Saccomanno, an ocean scientist at The Nature Conservancy (TNC), was one partner in a monumental effort to gather data on sunflower stars’ dramatic population loss over the past decade.
“Science at this scale included nearly 70 people from over 60 institutions, hailing from four countries and five First Nations,” she told The Mendocino Voice. TNC and Oregon State University’s team, led by Sarah Gravem, worked to collate those many disparate surveys and studies to provide a clear picture of the stars’ decline.
In August of 2021, the Center for Biological Diversity petitioned to list the sunflower star as endangered or threatened, calling the loss a “‘zombie apocalypse’ of the sea.” Pycnopodia has since been listed as critically endangered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (IUCN).
Out of its Pycnopodia Recovery Working Group, TNC has created a Roadmap to Recovery for the Sunflower Sea Star, highlighting solutions such as Friday Harbor Laboratories’ work to rear juvenile stars in labs and eventually, reintroduce them to the ocean. An ESA listing would provide enhanced backing for these efforts.
“We [would have], really, the full weight of the U.S. federal government behind recovering the species,” Saccomanno explained. This would include a plan from NOAA with species recovery goals, periodic monitoring and evaluation, support for community-wide efforts to recover the species, and potential grants to aid in recovery operations, she detailed, saying the support would be “mission-critical.”
The likelihood of an ESA listing gives Saccomanno a lot of hope that these “grizzly bears” of their underwater ecosystem could return.
“I am one of many really passionate people about recovering [pycnopodia] for its own intrinsic value,” she said. “And for that it confers on important ecosystems, that both people and nature rely on. For me, this week has been kind of surreal in many ways, thinking back on the last five years of intensive science and collaboration with our partners. … It’s pretty surreal to watch all that effort culminate in this very important milestone for recovery, which of course, is just a milestone because now it’s — excitingly — time to do the work to recover the species.”
Note: Kate Fishman covers the environment & natural resources for The Mendocino Voice in partnership with a Report For America. Her position is funded by the Community Foundation of Mendocino, Report for America, & our readers. You can support Fishman’s work with a tax-deductible donation here or by emailing [email protected]. Contact her at KFishman@mendovoice.com or at (707) 234-7735. The Voice maintains editorial control and independence.