SAN FRANCISCO— The Center for Biological Diversity submitted a federal petition today calling for the sunflower sea star to be protected under the Endangered Species Act. Sunflowers, one of the world’s largest sea stars, have declined rapidly because of sea star wasting disease. They’ve lost more than 90% of their Pacific Ocean population since 2013.
Sunflower sea stars — which have up to 24 arms, can be a meter wide and come in a variety of bright colors — have been suffering gruesome and disfiguring deaths from sea star wasting disease. The disease outbreak is being driven by climate change, with warmer oceans making the effects more severe and deadly. Ocean acidification also threatens sunflower sea stars.
“Sunflower sea stars are rapidly declining, and we must act now before it’s too late,” said Miyoko Sakashita, ocean program director with the Center. “They’re crucial to maintaining healthy kelp forest ecosystems. It’s so sad to see these big, colorful sunflowers suffer gruesome deaths from sea star wasting disease. They need our help.”
Sunflower sea stars live along shorelines from Southern California to the southern coast of Alaska. They reproduce through broadcast spawning, requiring proximity to other stars. Sunflower sea stars are fast and voracious predators who are critical to maintaining balanced coastal ecosystems by keeping in check urchins that devour kelp forests and leave them barren.
The outbreak of sea star wasting disease is considered one of the largest marine epidemics, and it caused massive sea star mortality along the West Coast. Sea star wasting disease is a gruesome killer, causing lesions, contortions, lost limbs, disintegration and death. Sunflower sea stars never recovered from being wiped out by the disease, and they have been declared critically endangered by the IUCN.
The listing petition, sent to the National Marine Fisheries Service, seeks an Endangered Species Act listing that could trigger an additional review of shoreline armoring and other coastal development projects that might push the species toward extinction.