Bringing stars back to the sea 

At the Friday Harbor Laboratories , recovery is afoot. Scientists at this University of Washington facility in the San Juan Islands are working to help sunflower stars - a type of sea star - grow and thrive once again after their populations along the West Coast were devastated by a mysterious disease.

"They’re gone in a lot of places, and a lot of what we’re doing here is testing out ideas for reintroduction," said Jason Hodin , a researcher at the lab.

In summer 2013, sea star wasting syndrome began to attack more than a dozen sea star species up and down the West Coast of North America. Since sea stars - a group of invertebrates that are also called starfish - are essential predators, their decimation upended marine ecosystems from Mexico to Alaska.

"In regions where these important predators are gone, we’ve seen explosions of species they would normally prey upon, like sea urchins," said Hodin. "That disrupts kelp forests, turning them into what we call ’urchin barrens.’ It adversely affected food webs all’along the West Coast."

The outbreak of this syndrome, the cause of which is still unknown, has led scientists like Hodin to study how to help sea stars get a leg up - or more accurately, an arm up. In partnership with The Nature Conservancy, Hodin and his team have pioneered methods to rear sunflower stars in the laboratory. Sunflower stars were particularly hard hit by sea star wasting syndrome, and they play an especially critical role as predators in marine ecosystems. Hodin’s team wanted to learn whether lab-raised stars could be introduced successfully into the wild to boost their numbers.

"The laboratory studies are also giving us insight into the ecology and behavior of sunflower stars across their whole life history, including the young stages when they are too small to easily find in the wild - even when populations were strong," said Hodin. "This approach is helping us learn what we need to know to be able to help bring the species back from the brink."

Related coverage: 

" NBC’s ’Wild Kingdom’ features sea star rearing lab at UW Friday Harbor Labs " (UW College of the Environment, Feb. 6, 2024)

Last year, the research team - led by Scientific Diver Joey Ullmann - "planted" laboratory-grown sunflower stars in cages at three sites in the San Juan Islands to ascertain how well they would grow and thrive during more than two months in the wild. The team discovered that lab-reared stars did well, and Hodin hopes that these efforts will pave a way toward the restoration of healthy kelp forests.

"It’s all pointing in pretty positive signs that this was successful," said Hodin.

It’s a promising start, with more to come.

Tag(s): College of the Environment o Friday Harbor Laboratories o Jason Hodin