It has been nearly a decade since researchers and beachcombers watched sea stars seemingly melt away in front of them.
Beginning in 2013 and 2014, a mysterious disease decimated sea star populations on the West Coast. The cause of sea star wasting syndrome, which hit some 23 different species of sea stars, remains a scientific mystery, though there are several theories and the disease occurred in step with changing ocean conditions.
One thing remains clear: Some sea star populations have not fully recovered. At least one species is being considered for listing under the federal Endangered Species Act — the sunflower sea star, whose population declined by as much as 90% across its traditional range from Baja California to Alaska and by an estimated 98% off the Oregon Coast alone.
To ease pressure on sea star populations, the Oregon Fish and Wildlife Commission voted late last week to prohibit people from harvesting any sea stars off the Oregon Coast.
Commercial sea star harvests have not been allowed since 2014, but people have been able to harvest the animals on a recreational basis — up to 10 sea stars per day, per person. Actual participation is believed to be very low with only a few people collecting sea stars here and there to dry as souvenirs. Dried sea stars available to buy in local gift shops do not, in general, come from Oregon, noted Steve Rumrill, shellfish program leader for the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife.
But issues of sea star conservation surfaced during public discussions about an update to Oregon’s Rocky Shores Management Plan. People asked the Fish and Wildlife Commission to consider banning all harvest on sea stars. For local conservation and education groups, the commission’s vote last week is welcome news.
“More than anything it’s just a sigh of relief,” said Kelli Ennis, director for the Haystack Rock Awareness Program in Cannon Beach. “Kind of positive reassurance that it won’t be happening.”
Ennis and volunteers and staff with the awareness program regularly monitor sea stars in and around Haystack Rock, looking for signs of the wasting syndrome. No harvest of any animals is allowed on the iconic rock, but Ennis has heard about people shucking off sea stars at other locations. Any little bit of protection will help, she says.
In recent years, the Haystack Rock Awareness Program has seen positive signs of improvement among sea stars around Haystack Rock.
In survey data from September, 12 to 15% of the sea star population around Haystack Rock still showed signs of the wasting syndrome, but nothing severe, Ennis said. They saw minor lesions, not the full jelly-like disintegration of years past. None of the sea stars were actively missing limbs.
“We’re kind of optimistic,” Ennis said.
Sea stars are considered a keystone species, a major predator in their corner of the intertidal ecosystem. When sea star populations drop suddenly, there are downstream effects on the entire ecosystem. When sea star wasting syndrome hit British Columbia in Canada in 2015, the sudden die-off of sea stars showed researchers exactly how important the animals were to kelp forests and in keeping sea urchin populations in check.
For the Fish and Wildlife Commission and staff, it doesn’t matter that recreational harvest of the sea stars is very low. There is high public interest in sea star conservation and, Rumrill told commissioners, “This is a prudent management action at this time to demonstrate the commitment to conservation.”
The state has also contributed original data to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration as the agency considers possible listing for the sunflower star fish under the Endangered Species Act.
The state hopes to hear back from NOAA by midsummer about what type of status might be assigned to the sunflower sea star.
Oregon Fish and Wildlife Commission Chair Mary Wahl asked if the sunflower species belongs on Oregon’s endangered species list, regardless of what NOAA decides.
“I personally believe that it does at this point,” Rumrill answered.
Sunflower sea stars live farther out than the five-armed ochre sea stars many people are used to seeing in tide pools on the North Coast. The large sunflower sea stars can have as many as 24 limbs and are rare visitors to the intertidal zone. They might show up in crab pots, but there has not ever been recreational harvest of the animals.
Still, he assured Wahl, there are internal discussions about how to address this particular specie’s declining numbers.
Rumrill also pointed to hopeful news coming out of the University of Washington where researchers have successfully reared sunflower sea stars in captivity.
The team responsible for the work wrapped up a fundraiser this month and hopes to work on experimental wild reintroduction of captive-raised juvenile sea stars this year.