Scientists are looking to REEF members and other recreational divers and snorkelers to help track population recovery of the Sunflower Seastar (Pycnopodia helianthoides). With up to 24 arms, this giant seastar was historically a common sight in the kelp forests and rocky reefs from Alaska to Baja California in Mexico. Unfortunately, the species has experienced a dramatic decline in recent years, primarily due to a Seastar Wasting Disease epidemic that swept along the US and Canadian west coast from 2013-2016 and is still ongoing in places. If you see a Sunflower Seastar while in the water or walking the tide pools, please submit information about the location, size and health of the individual, and any photos using REEF's Sunflower Seastar Sightings Form at www.REEF.org/sunflowerstar.
REEF is one of dozens of institutions and individuals involved in the Pycnopodia Recovery Working Group, originally convened by researchers from Oregon State University in late 2019. The goals of the working group included creating a master database of Pycnopodia population demographics, implementing research and strategies regarding conservation and recovery of the species, and compiling information necessary to have the species considered for Red List status by the International Union of the Conservation of Nature (IUCN; a global endangered species list). REEF provided researchers the long-time series of sightings data from Volunteer Fish Survey Project surveys from the Pacific coast region conducted before, during, and after the devastating epidemic. Thanks to the efforts of our volunteer surveyors, REEF was able to contribute almost a third of the data used in the IUCN assessment. We shared data from 32,517 REEF surveys conducted at hundreds of sites between California and Alaska from 1998 to 2019, which included 18,035 records of the Sunflower Seastar.
The resulting analysis, published in December 2020, found a 90.6% decline in the species, prompting the IUCN to place the Sunflower Seastar on the Red List as Critically Endangered, just one step below extinction. The Sunflower Seastar's decline has led to cascading impacts on the marine environment, including a population explosion of sea urchins, one of the main prey items consumed by the Sunflower Seastar. Higher numbers of sea urchins, which feast on kelp, has led to “urchin barrens” and a significant decline in kelp forest ecosystems. As populations begin to recover in certain areas, information from REEF's Sunflower Seastar Sightings Form data will provide researchers with much-needed real-time information on size and condition of individual Pycnopodia.