Frequently Asked Questions About the Proposed Listing of the Sunflower Sea Star as Threatened Under the Endangered Species Act
NOAA Fisheries is proposing to list the Sunflower Sea Star as threatened throughout its range under the Endangered Species Act
Where do sunflower sea stars naturally occur?
Sunflower sea stars are native to marine waters along the west coast of North America and can be found from northern Baja California, Mexico, northward to the Aleutian Islands, Alaska. They occur in waters ranging from just a few feet deep to over 1400 feet deep, though they are generally encountered in waters shallower than 120 feet.
Do sunflower sea stars prefer certain kinds of habitat?
Sunflower sea stars are habitat generalists, occurring on mud, sand, cobble, shell hash, boulders, and bedrock. They also associate with eelgrass meadows and kelp forests, in addition to other vegetated areas.
What do sunflower sea stars eat?
Sunflower sea stars prey on a variety of bivalves (clams, mussels, oysters), molluscs (snails), and other invertebrates. They play a crucial ecological role as predators of sea urchins, preventing overconsumption of kelp and other structure-forming species. They are capable of digging to reach prey buried in soft sediment and can chase prey down – moving more than 4 ft/min to do so. While this isn’t fast compared to a human, or many kinds of marine animals, it makes them one of the fastest sea stars in the world. They will also consume carrion, such as dead fish, octopus, birds, etc.
What eats sunflower sea stars?
Very few predators of sunflower sea stars are known. Sea otters occasionally eat them, as do some other sea star species. As larvae, sunflower sea stars are consumed by a variety of planktivorous species, though no species are known to preferentially consume them. Human consumption of sunflower sea stars has not been documented at any life stage.
How long can a sunflower star live?
While the longevity of sunflower sea stars in the wild is unknown, specimens have been held in aquariums for several decades.
Why is the sunflower sea star proposed for listing under the ESA?
From 2013-17, an outbreak of Sea Star Wasting Syndrome (SSWS) caused massive die-offs of sunflower sea stars, and several other sea star species, throughout their range. From the Washington coast south to Mexico, > 97% of the population is estimated to have died. Northern areas of the range fared better, but losses are still estimated to have exceeded 85% in most areas. SSWS causes the rays of sea stars to twist and curl unnaturally, white lesions to form on the surface of their body, and in a matter of days to a week the animal melts into a pile of slimy goop and coarse grit.
What causes SSWS, and why did it get so bad from 2013‑17?
SSWS has been around since at least the 1800s but its cause remains unknown. Various species of sea stars are affected by it, but not all to the same degree or in the same way. During the 2013-17 pandemic, at least a dozen species of large sea stars were affected, but population declines were apparently greatest in the sunflower sea star. Not knowing what causes the disease, it is difficult to determine what triggered the 2013-17 outbreak, but some studies have linked SSWS prevalence with water temperature, change in water temperature, low dissolved oxygen, high nutrient levels, and other stressors. Many of these factors are influenced by anthropogenic climate change. Research is ongoing to identify the causative agent of SSWS and environmental triggers that may lead to wide-spread outbreaks.
Could NOAA Fisheries use regulatory measures to reduce impacts to specific habitats to help protect the sunflower sea star?
Yes, once species are listed under the ESA, critical habitat is designated to the maximum extent prudent and determinable. Once designated, Federal agencies must ensure that any actions they authorize, fund, or carry out do not destroy or adversely modify the critical habitat. However, the sunflower sea star is a habitat generalist, and we know little about when and where spawning, early rearing, and other crucial life processes take place. Without sufficient scientific understanding of these areas and the physical, and biological habitat features that are essential to the conservation of the sea star, we cannot determine what areas constitute critical habitat for this species. Thus, critical habitat is not determinable at this time.
Would listing the sunflower sea star as threatened affect fisheries in any way?
The major threat to persistence of the sunflower sea star is SSWS, outbreaks of which have been linked to climatic changes exacerbated by anthropogenic climate change. The best data available indicate that the threat to sunflower sea stars from fisheries is very small. Therefore, NOAA Fisheries does not intend to issue take prohibitions or other protective regulations directed at fisheries that encounter sunflower sea stars as bycatch. Federal fisheries that may affect sunflower sea stars will undergo ESA section 7 consultation to ensure they are not likely to jeopardize the continued existence of the species. If encountered in recreational or commercial fisheries, sunflower sea stars should be handled carefully, gently returned to the water, and the encounter reported to State, Tribal, or Federal fishery managers.
How will climate change affect the sunflower sea star?
As noted above, stressors associated with climate change may affect the frequency and intensity of SSWS outbreaks in coming years. Other direct impacts of climate change on sunflower sea stars will likely include changes to prey base, distribution of competitors, habitat suitability, and potential changes to a diversity of other ecological parameters. Predicting which species will be “winners” and “losers” is complex and requires numerous assumptions, but changes in any number of factors could result in local population declines of the sunflower sea star. Monitoring of sunflower sea stars and the various ecological parameters will help us learn more about these potential effects.
Would federal agencies need to request ESA section 7 consultation for actions that may affect sunflower sea stars?
Yes. As with other ESA-listed species, if the sunflower sea star is ultimately listed, any action authorized, conducted, or funded by the federal government (i.e., actions with a federal nexus) will require an ESA section 7 consultation to ensure such action is not likely to jeopardize the continued existence of the sunflower sea star. For many actions, such as fisheries and port maintenance operations, the sunflower sea star will be added to a suite of species for which consultation already occurs. For new actions that may affect the sea stars, consultations will be conducted and will vary in complexity depending on the nature of the action and the anticipated impacts to the sunflower sea star.
If listed, what is the recovery planning process for this species?
Section 4 of the ESA enables NMFS to appoint recovery teams to develop and implement recovery plans. If sunflower sea stars are listed as threatened, NMFS can coordinate assistance from state, federal, tribal, local governmental, and others to prepare a recovery plan for this species. The NMFS Recovery Planning process is detailed at this website.
What is a threatened species and how is it different from an endangered species?
The Endangered Species Act defines an endangered species as “any species which is in danger of extinction throughout all or a significant portion of its range,” and a threatened species as one “which is likely to become an endangered species within the foreseeable future throughout all or a significant portion of its range.” Thus, an endangered species is one that is presently at risk of extinction, and a threatened species is one that is not currently at risk of extinction but is likely to become so in the foreseeable future.
When a species is listed as an endangered species, the prohibitions identified in section 9 of the ESA automatically apply to that species. Under section 9 of the ESA, it is illegal to import, export, or take endangered species for any purpose, including commercial activity. The term “take” means to harass, hunt, shoot, capture, trap, kill, collect, wound, harm, or pursue an ESA-listed species, or attempt any of these activities. When a species is listed as a threatened species, the section 9 prohibitions do not automatically apply to the species. The ESA does, however, authorize us to issue regulations under section 4(d) of the ESA to extend some, or all, of these section 9 prohibitions to threatened species. Under section 4(d), we can also issue customized protective regulations that are deemed necessary and advisable to provide for the conservation of the threatened species.
Is NOAA Fisheries seeking information from the public at this time?
Yes. Any interested person can comment and provide additional information on the proposal rule during the public comment period. We will also consider new information that may not have been available when we conducted our status review for the sunflower sea star.