Washington biologist breeding critically endangered sunflower sea stars

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Billions of sunflower sea stars have died on the Pacific Coast over the past decade, but a biologist in Washington state is using his expertise to try to revive the species. 

Jason Hodin, a scientist with Friday Harbor Laboratories, is breeding the endangered sea stars on San Juan Island, just east of Vancouver Island. 

The sunflower sea star is one of the largest sea stars in the world, and can have up to 30 arms. The decline in population is due in part to an outbreak of sea star wasting disease, which ultimately leads starfish to dissolve. 

“There were differences between the way in which different species were affected,” Hodin told Early Edition guest host Jodie Martinson. 

“As it happens, the sunflower sea star, for reasons that we don’t understand, was probably the worst affected of all the species.”

The sunflower sea star, Hodin said, is considered an “extreme predator,” and has important functions within its ecosystem, which is why he hopes to help revive the species.

Hodin, a larval biologist, specializes in raising species of sea urchin, sea stars and other related creatures and studying their larvae and metamorphosis. 

In the wild, Hodin said there are occasional sightings of sunflower sea star spawnings where individual sea stars spawn simultaneously, releasing their sperm and eggs into the water, where fertilization takes place. 

These juvenile sunflower sea stars were reared by biologist Jason Hodin at his lab on San Juan Island. (Submitted by Jason Hodin)

That has happened in the lab, but rarely, although, Hodin said, there are methods to sort of coax them into giving up their eggs and sperm.”

He then started raising them as larvae. 

“The biggest challenge was settling them out into juveniles from their floating planktonic stage to their tiny little juvenile stage on the sea floor, where they start to look like an actual star and then finding out what they eat and what conditions to grow them in as juveniles.” 

“It’s been rarely done for any sea star species and it’s never been done for sunflower stars.”

Scientist Jason Hodin describes sunflower sea stars as “extreme predators” that are important to their ecosystems. (Submitted by Jason Hodin)

He’s hopeful the progress he’s made, raising sunflower sea stars in the lab will be applied in larger aquaculture facilities, which could ultimately lead to reintroducing them to the Pacific Coast. 

“With the time, patience and appropriate funding for it, we think we can grow sunflower sea stars to scale, and hopefully in our neck of the woods, we might be able to work toward small scale reintroduction [in Washington state].”

From there, with the use of divers and the ability to monitor the sea stars, he hopes the information they gather can be used to reintroduce the species in other places, like California, where sunflower sea stars have disappeared almost entirely.

To hear Jason Hodin’s interview on CBC’s The Early Edition, click here: 

The Early Edition8:08Washington State man breeds starfish to turn around their extinction

Jason Hodin speaks with Jodie Martinson about why he is committed to changing the story of the dying sun star. 8:08



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