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Scientists call for action to help sunflower starfish

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West Coast scientists have called for action to help the sunflower starfish, among the world’s largest, recover from a catastrophic population decline.

Experts say an outbreak of starfish wasting disease that began in 2013 wiped out about 95% of the population of the Aleutian Islands from Alaska to Mexico’s Baja California Peninsula, The Asturian reports.

This decline led the International Union for Conservation of Nature to classify the species as Critically Endangered in 2020. The species has been requested to be listed under the federal Endangered Species Act in 2021.

Stephen Rummel, chief of the shellfish program for the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife, said that in his more than 40 years as a marine scientist, he has never seen a species decline as widespread as the sunflower starfish.

The starfish is one of the largest species in the world and can extend over 3 feet (91 cm) in length and is a predator of sea urchins that feed on kelp. Without them, sea urchin populations would explode causing an alarming decline in the kelp forests that provide food and shelter for many aquatic species along the West Coast.

Romerell contributed to a recently released starfish recovery roadmap as a guide for scientists and conservationists.

“It breaks your heart when you see a species decline so quickly into extinction,” said Romell. “Globally, we are aware that human impacts have had significant impacts on populations and many extinctions around the world. It is what is happening before our eyes.”

The roadmap was developed in collaboration with The Nature Conservancy, the National Marine Fisheries Service, and state agencies in California, Oregon, Washington, and Alaska.

It is estimated that starfish wasting disease has caused the deaths of more than 5.75 billion sunflower sea stars.

The source of the outbreak has not been conclusively identified, but the document says warming ocean waters due to human-caused climate change increases disease severity and could trigger outbreaks.

Rummel said the listing in the Endangered Species Act could lead to federal funding to continue the research.

Matthew Birx, a spokesman for the National Marine Fisheries Service, said whether the agency recommends that starfish be listed under the Endangered Species Act in the Federal Register early next year.

While the sunflower starfish appears to be hardest hit by the waste of starfish disease, it is among nearly 20 documented species of endangered sea star along the West Coast.

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