[If you are coming here from Instagram, please see this link for background on Sea Star Wasting and where to report sightings.]
Endangered? I gasped when I saw this adult Sunflower Star on my last dive and hung nearby for a little while. I found myself thinking in a way that could be interpreted as prayer.
Did you realize Sunflower Stars are now so rare – these giants that should be abundant on the coast from Alaska to Mexico?
Endangered? Many of us who have been monitoring Sea Star Wasting Disease since 2013 certainly think so and there is a campaign in Washington State to have them recognized as such.
There has been such misunderstanding and “ocean blindness” about what has been going on. Even reputable news outlets have put into the world information about the Disease that speaks of sea stars as if they were one species and hence, if some sea stars are sighted, well then everything is fine.
It’s not fine. At least 20 species of sea star have been impacted by Sea Star Wasting Disease. Some are recovering well but . . . this the world’s largest sea star species, the Sunflower Star, Pycnopodia helianthoides, is NOT.
We sometimes see waves of juveniles, maybe resulting from more adults being at depth who are close together enough that when they broadcast spawn, fertilization results (broadcast spawning is when males and females release their sex cells into the water on cue). But, ultimately these juveniles disappear.
Sea Star Wasting Disease (SSWD) is the largest wildlife die off in recorded history. That be truth. But because it is happening below the surface there is less engagement, funding, and knowledge.
Does it matter? Yes, it matters a lot, ecologically and with regard to what the Disease may teach us.
Sunflower Stars have a similar ecological niche to Sea Otters re. grazing on urchins and maintaining kelp forests (see video below). You know that if Sea Otters were dying en masse we would certainly be engaged, invest in research, and want knowledge.
What is the cause? Specifically for Sunflower Stars, it is known that there is a virus that has been around for more than 70 years that, since 2013, is having an unprecedented impact .
Why would a virus that is not new be able to have a greater impact? Due to stressors and yes, these are believed to be related to climate change.
To those wonderfully engaged humans who have read all of this, please know this is not an additional problem that requires novel solutions. You are the last people who I wish to burden, you who care as you do. The plight of Sunflower Stars is a symptom of what is the same set of problems re. short term economies, absence of precaution, fossil fuel use, and consumerism.
Reporting sightings? I have reported the sighting of this lone, adult Sunflower Star to add to the knowledge of the impacts of SSWD. Citizen science is so important to understanding. Further information on the Disease and where to report sightings of sea stars can be in my blog at this link.
And to you dear Sunflower Star,
May you find another of your kind for the sake of biodiversity, ecology, human learning and understanding, and so that your species will not disappear from children’s drawings of life on our coast.
May it not be that we continue on a path where Sunflower Stars slip away from our memories, or that we end up talking to children about “There used to be these giant, colourful sea stars . . .”
Sighting was made on June 15th, near Port McNeill.
Video below re. Sea Star Wasting Disease and ecological impacts.