With 15,000 tube feet and up to 24 arms, the magnificent Sunflower Sea Star (Pycnopodia helianthoides) is found from Baja Mexico to Alaska. Since 2013, 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 the 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. REEF 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. Thanks to the efforts of our volunteer surveyors, REEF was able to contribute almost a third of the data used in the IUCN assessment.
The analysis found a 90.6% decline in the species. The resulting report was issued to the IUCN in fall 2020 and in December of that year, it was announced that the Sunflower Sea Star was placed on the IUCN Red List as Critically Endangered, just one step below extinction. The decline has had cascading impacts on the marine environment. Sunflower Sea Stars are a main predator of sea urchins, whose populations have now exploded in many regions. Higher numbers of sea urchins, which feast on kelp, has led to “urchin barrens” and a significant decline in kelp forest ecosystems.