Return of the Sea Stars

The population of sea stars along the west coast of North America has dropped precipitously in the last five years. The die-off was first noted in the late summer of 2013 near Vancouver, B.C. By the end of the year multiple species of sea stars were also dying in large numbers in Washington, Oregon, and California. Researchers dubbed it Sea Star Wasting Syndrome and though the underlying cause is still poorly understood, one clear link is warmer water temperatures.

Sea stars may not be very charismatic but they are considered a keystone species for the tidepool/intertidal zone. Ochre Sea Stars (Pisaster ochraceus) control the California Mussel population, while Sunflower Sea Stars (Pycnopodia helianthoides) feed on sea urchins – without them, mussels and sea urchins would quickly take over to the detriment of other species. Having had the “pleasure” of stepping on a sea urchin, you can guess why I love Sunflower Sea Stars!

In my (admittedly limited) recent tidepool surveys I felt fortunate to see one or two Ochre Seas Stars. But earlier this week, low tide was especially low, finally allowing access to some large rocks. These rocks were absolutely covered in lifeforms: California Mussels, Acorn and Gooseneck Barnacles, anemones, turban snails, chitons, Sea Lettuce, Coralline Algae, Rockweed, and yes, even Ochre Sea Stars!

I was immediately drawn to the large orange ones but as I got closer the mauve ones started to reveal themselves. When I really leaned in, I discovered the dark areas that looked like sections of bare rock were actually covered in tiny Sea Stars! What a wonderful surprise!