Baby starfish return to Oregon, California after massive die-off

PORTLAND, Oregon (Reuters) - Baby starfish are making a comeback in Oregon and California just two years after disease nearly wiped out the small but integral sea creature, scientists said on Tuesday.

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Starfish, also known as sea stars, are crucial predators that eat mussels and barnacles, keeping their populations under control, scientists said. Studies have shown large populations of mussels will crowd an area, leaving no room for algae or other small invertebrates.

Officials are hopeful the increase in babies will mean a resurgence of the starfish population. A study by Oregon State University scientists released last week showed an increase of purple ochre starfish babies that was 300 times the normal rate.

The purple sea star makes up the majority of intertidal sea stars along the West Coast of North America, and is one of the more commonly seen sea stars because of its color and size.

“The large numbers of babies is unprecedented,” Oregon State professor of integrative biology and lead author on the study Bruce Menge said in a telephone interview. “Nobody’s ever seen anything like this.”

Scientists are not sure why there is such a large increase in starfish, but Menge said many believe the babies had more to eat because there were fewer adults to compete with following the die-off two years ago.

Sea stars from southern Alaska to Baja California started dying in large numbers in 2014 from a wasting disease that causes white lesions to appear before the animal’s body sags, ruptures and spills out its internal organs.

Researchers monitoring sea stars in Humboldt, Del Norte and Mendocino Counties in California, are seeing an uptick in starfish babies similar to what was found in Oregon, Brian Tissot, director of the marine laboratory at Humboldt State University, said in a telephone interview.

Although the increase in starfish babies has scientists hopeful, the disease that nearly wiped them out in 2014 is not gone. Some adult populations are still declining, Tissot said.

If the baby starfish can avoid the disease and survive, it could mean a resurgence for the decimated populations, Menge said.

Reporting by Shelby Sebens; Editing by Ben Klayman