When it comes to West Coast starfish, and Central Coast starfish in particular, don’t call it a comeback — not yet anyway.
While some species of sea star have been spotted with additional frequency since the mysterious Sea Star Wasting Syndrome caused millions of starfish to die off beginning in 2013, Peter Raimondi, interim director for the Institute of Marine Sciences at UC Santa Cruz, said that recovery has been “patchy” at best.
A recent report in the Orange County Register detailed several locations in Southern California where more starfish are being reported. Raimondi said that isn’t the case everywhere.
“What is true on the Central Coast, and most places along the coast, is that it’s patchy,” he said.
Raimondi said part of the problem is that most people only see half of the story: the sea stars that dwell in the intertidal zones “where people go to the most.” What they don’t see, he said, are the sea stars that more commonly reside underwater.
While there has been a noted uptick in ochre sea stars in certain areas along the West Coast, he said, “under water, there’s a lot more species, and many of them were affected.”
None more so, Raimondi said, than the giant sunflower sea star.
“It’s a beautiful animal,” he said. “It was almost completely taken out.”
Raimondo said it’s difficult to find a sunflower sea star, once a thriving and voracious predator commonly found along the Central Coast, “other than some locations in Alaska.”
The removal of a predator from the underwater ecosystem had likely consequences, Raimondo said, including a boom in sea urchins (common prey for sea stars) that in turn has depleted kelp populations along the West Coast.
As for the wasting syndrome, the cause remains unknown.
“I think if anything, it’s a little bit more mysterious now,” Raimondo said, because the more researchers study the disease, the more questions they have.