Seaing Stars in the Marine Lab

Graphic: Annabel Driussi for Our Daily Planet

By Ashira Morris, ODP Staff Writer

Over the last decade, nearly 91% of the sunflower sea star population has been wiped out, landing the species a “critically endangered” categorization last year. The sea stars, which have 24 arms, are an important part of the underwater food web: they keep kelp forests healthy by feeding on sea urchins. Without them, the kelp forests have declined. In an attempt to revive the species and restore the health of kelp forests, scientists are breeding the sea stars in captivity for the first time. Bloomberg Green calls the conservation strategy “the Jurassic Park approach to combating climate change.”

Why This Matters: Between rising temperatures, overfishing, ocean acidification, among other harms, people have thrown the U.S. West Coast marine ecosystem off the balance. Without the sea star in California, purple urchin populations have boomed. The urchins gobble up kelp forests, which, in turn, harms other marine wildlife and fishing communities. Few wild sea star communities remain. “I don’t see that we’ve got any other options,” Laura Rogers-Bennett, a marine scientist with the University of California, Davis, and the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, told Bloomberg. “[The sea stars are] not capable of bouncing back on their own. We have to do something.”

What Comes Next?

Last week, the University of Washington lab breeding the endangered sea stars celebrated as dozens of the poppy seed-sized star babies metamorphosed from floating larvae to mini stars, the first step toward adulthood. The research team initially collected wild sea stars from one of the last known colonies in the Salish Sea. It remains to be seen if their children will return to the open ocean. The captive breeding program is still exploring if it’s advisable to release the captively grown stars into the wild. 

“What we’re attempting to do here is to raise a new generation of sea stars in the lab,” Jason Hodin, a research scientist at Friday Harbor Labs who is leading the captive rearing efforts for the UW, said in a press release. “We’re hoping that our efforts can help in the process of recovery of the sunflower sea star and, ultimately, recovery of the health of ecosystems like the kelp forests that are under threat right now.”

Kelp is Key

The kelp forests that sunflower sea stars call home are on the brink: the forests in Northern California have declined as much as 95% since 2013, in no small part because of the marine heatwave that killed off the sea stars and led to the urchin overtake. In addition to their role in providing shelter, habitat, and food to marine life, kelp is also great at sequestering carbon — which some companies have already latched onto for the opportunity to shift carbon out of the atmosphere and to the ocean floor.   

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