;

Study ties warming climate to starfish die-off on Oregon Coast

There is a growing movement among scientists in Oregon and the West Coast to get the Sunflower sea stars listed as an endangered species.

PORTLAND, Ore. — Along some parts of the Oregon Coast, 90 percent of the starfish have literally dissolved away.

Many scientists believe a virus is the causing of the unprecedented die-off. Now, results from a massive, multi-year study on the Sunflower sea star found it is also tied to something else: warmer ocean temperatures.

Loading ...

University of California Davis epidemiologist Diego Montecino led the study.

"When the water is warmer and these species are not used to it, they get stressed and that makes them more susceptible to disease," he explained.

They are findings that come as little surprise to researchers at Oregon State University. Marine ecologist Sarah Gravem has been tracking starfish populations since the die-off began.

"The sea star that used to be super abundant, that I used to play with when I was a graduate student, has gone from abundant to non-existent in California and Oregon," Gravem said.

Gravem and her colleagues are seeing firsthand the impact the outbreak has had, not only on the starfish, but on the ocean as we know it.

"Without the sea stars keeping the sea urchins in check, the sea urchins are going totally bananas and mowing down the kelp forests," she said.

These are kelp forests that are the foundation of our coastal food chain. They are food and habitat for fish. Fish marine mammals, not to mention our multi-million dollar fishing industry, depend on to survive.

"It would be like all of a sudden all the trees are gone in an entire forest. That's how important the help is for this ecosystem," Gravem said.

There is a growing movement among scientists in Oregon and the West Coast to get the sea stars listed as an endangered species. It is that dire of a situation.