With 15,000 tube feet and up to 24 arms, the world's largest and fastest sea star species, the Sunflower Sea Star, Pycnopodia helianthoides, is found from Baja Mexico to Alaska. Over the last seven years, this magnificent species has suffered a dramatic decline due to a wasting disease. Many fear that the species may be on the brink of extinction. To quantify the decline and possibly establish grounds for protections and intervention, REEF joined in a partnership of more than 60 institutions led by The Nature Conservancy and Oregon State University. REEF provided data collected through our Volunteer Fish Survey Project to help establish whether the Sunflower Sea Star warranted listing on the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN)’s Red List of Threatened Species.
The analysis found a 90.6% decline in the species, prompting the IUCN to place the Sunflower Sea Star on the Red List as Critically Endangered, just one step below extinction. The Sunflower Sea Star'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 Sea Star. Higher numbers of sea urchins, which feast on kelp, has led to “urchin barrens” and a significant decline in kelp forest ecosystems.
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 Sea Star.
Work is now underway to implement conservation actions and research. REEF is thankful to our volunteers and supporters who make it possible for us to the coordinate the Volunteer Fish Survey Project, which includes housing a dataset of over 11 million marine life sightings and a quarter-million surveys, training volunteers, and providing access to valuable marine life data. For more information about the Volunteer Fish Survey Project, visit www.REEF.org/vfsp.
Reef Environmental Education Foundation (REEF) conserves marine environments worldwide. Our mission is to protect biodiversity and ocean life by actively engaging and inspiring the public through citizen science, education, and partnerships with the scientific community. For more information, visit www.REEF.org.