Darryl Fears, WASHINGTON POST
Six years after it was stricken by a wasting disease off the northern California coast, the sunflower sea star – one of the most colorful starfish in the ocean – has all but vanished, and the domino effect threatens to unravel an entire marine ecosystem.
The cause of the sea star’s demise is a mystery, but it coincided with a warming event in the Pacific Ocean, possibly tied to the climate, that lasted for two years ending in 2015. It heated vast stretches of water in patches, and likely exacerbated the disease, according to a new study released Wednesday.
“I’ve never seen a decline of this magnitude of a species so important,” Drew Harvell, the lead author of the study, published in the journal Science Advances, that documented the sunflower sea star’s retreat into possible extinction off California and Oregon.
If the study had a purpose, she said, it was to call attention to the sea star’s demise so that federal officials would take action to list it as endangered and work to save it, possibly with a breeding program using sunflower stars that are surviving in parts of Washington, Alaska and Canada.
“It’s big news and cause for major management action,” Harvell said. “We felt there wasn’t enough attention.”