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Oregon Coast Aquarium Divers Discover Juvenile Stars on Florence Jetty!
Divers in the Pacific Northwest faced a gruesome landscape of over the past few months. Sea stars, stricken with a wasting syndrome whose cause has puzzled scientists across the globe, were disintegrating arm by arm into pale piles of gelatinous goo.
A glimmer of hope appeared on Florence’s North Jetty this month in the form of juvenile stars. Aquarium volunteer science diver, Diane Hollingshead, first noticed the tiny invertebrates during a recreational dive. She let the Aquarium know and a team was deployed the next day to survey the area.
Aquarium Dive Safety Officer, Jenna Walker, who led the science dive team said, “It was overwhelming, when we first got down there it looked like the rocks were covered with barnacles. We soon realized those white spots were thousands and thousands of stars. I have never seen them in numbers like that, it was pretty incredible.”
The thumbnail-sized juveniles were so abundant, as many as 202 in a square meter, that divers had to change their survey technique to get an accurate sample of the stars’ numbers before they ran out of air. The stars are still too small for Aquarium staff to discern their species, but they plan to return to the site regularly in the coming months to monitor the progress.
The site in Florence, where adults were completely absent, proved to be a polar opposite from the teams’ findings in their survey areas near Newport. There, certain species of adults are still present, but juveniles have not been sighted for some time. The nature of sea stars’ reproductive cycle makes it difficult to discern from where the new stars originated. “Sea stars start out as plankton, and drift wherever currents will carry them,” said Stuart Clausen, Assistant Curator of Fishes and Invertebrates for the Aquarium.
This may be the first sign of recovery in Oregon, where sea star wasting syndrome has ravaged local sunflower (Pycnopodia helianthoides), false ochre (Evasterias troschelii), giant pink (Pisaster brevispinus) and ochre (Pisaster ochraceus) star populations.
“We are not out of the woods yet, but it is encouraging. It means some adults survived or at least put viable offspring in the water before being affected,” Clausen said.
The Aquarium and its partners will continue to dedicate considerable effort to transform this unfortunate mass die-off into an opportunity to learn more about the species and ecosystems the Aquarium has the privilege to conserve.
Details about the Aquarium’s initial discovery of sea star wasting syndrome in Oregon’s waters can be found at aquarium.org.