SAN FRANCISCO— Following a petition from the Center for Biological Diversity, the National Marine Fisheries Service today announced that endangered sunflower starfish may warrant protection under the US Endangered Species Act.
Since 2013, 90% of the Pacific population of these starfish has been destroyed by the terrible and disfiguring disease of starfish dieback. The epidemic is caused by climate change, with warming oceans making the effects more severe. and deadly.
“Seeing these spectacular shriveled and disfigured creatures paints a sad picture of how global warming is exacerbating disease and other damage in our oceans,” said Miyoko Sakashita, ocean program director at the Center. “This is an important step towards protecting this beautiful species and the kelp forests in which it lives. “
Sunflower starfish – which are up to 24 arms, can be three feet wide, and come in a variety of vibrant colors – live along the shores from Southern California to Southern Alaska. They are voracious predators whose consumption of sea urchins helps prevent overgrazing of kelp forests, maintaining coastal ecosystems.
The starfish dieback epidemic is considered one of the largest marine epidemics, causing massive starfish deaths along the west coast. The disease is a horrific killer, causing injury, contortions, lost limbs, disintegration and death. Sunflower starfish have never recovered from being wiped out by disease and are now listed as Critically Endangered by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature. Ocean acidification is also a threat to the species.
As a result of today’s ruling, the government will open a public comment period on sunflower starfish protection. The Endangered Species Act requires the National Marine Fisheries Service to decide to list the species by August 2022. Listing could trigger further review of shoreline shielding and other coastal development projects that could push the species towards extinction.