NOAA advises listing sunflower sea star as threatened after sharp decline

NOAA advises listing Sunflower Sea Star as threatened after sharp decline
Published: Mar. 16, 2023 at 9:16 AM AKDT|Updated: Mar. 16, 2023 at 1:25 PM AKDT
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ANCHORAGE, Alaska (KTUU) - One of the biggest sea stars in the world is now being considered as a threatened species, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

On Wednesday, experts reviewed the most updated information on the decline of the sunflower sea star. NOAA Fisheries then proposed to list this pacific coast species as threatened under the Endangered Species Act. They want to add protections to the sunflower sea star by listing it as threatened and recognizing the great threat the species currently faces.

Sadie Wright is a protected resource biologist at NOAA and the Alaska region lead scientist for the sunflower sea star, and describes the sea star as a “big, kind of floppy, soft sea star you see at intertidal and at low tide.” She said the species typically features between 20 to 24 arms with multiple colors, including a range of purples and oranges.

“Sunflower sea stars are our biggest sea star here in Alaska, they get up to a meter across, and they’re also characterized by being a voracious predator,” Wright explained.

As one of the largest sea stars in the world, the sunflower sea star is able to hunt its prey, and is considered likely to be in danger of extinction in the future. The species’ main threat is a condition called sea star wasting syndrome, which has been connected to warmer ocean temperatures.

“Between 2013 and 2017, we had a pandemic — an unknown pathogen swept through the population, and that led to declines of over 95% to sunflower sea stars along the west coast of the United States,” Wright said.

Wright emphasized that major declines of the species — some estimates have it between 40% to 100% in Alaska — became the primary reason why they have considered listing the sunflower sea star as threatened under the Endangered Species Act.

If the sunflower sea star is listed, it will ensure that federal activities will not jeopardize any species and will allow regional protections to be enacted.

Wright hopes to increase public awareness and let people know how to spot sunflower sea stars that are in trouble.

“When they contract it, their arms will begin to curl and over a short amount of time — over a couple of days — that curling turns into lesions and the arms will fall off the body of the animal, and it will basically turn into a gooey pile,” Wright explained.

The pathogen that leads to sea star wasting syndrome is amplified by warmer ocean temperatures and other physical stressors. Wright is worried that there may be another pandemic.

Officials ask the public to contact one of the NOAA regional offices if a sea star is spotted with those conditions.