Sunflower Star Lab: propagating starfish in Monterey

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Brett Hatch

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I saw a posting from somebody named Vincent Christian on one of the local FaceBook groups. He's working on a project to propagate sunflower starfish in a lab in Monterey. He'll be giving a webinar on Zoom, Tuesday the 3rd, at 2pm, where he will discuss the project and take questions.

I don't know him, but maybe some of you do. It says on his profile that he's a marine scientist who studied at Long Marine Lab in Moss Landing, and worked as an engineer at the SF Bay Regional Water Quality Control Board. So, I guess he's got the chops for this sort of thing. Sounds pretty cool, maybe y'all would like to hear what he has to say.

Vincent Christian on FB:
Dear Friends,
I will be giving a Zoom presentation on Tuesday, August 3, to announce the genesis of Sunflower Star Laboratory, a solar-powered floating laboratory in the middle of Monterey Harbor that I plan to build for the purpose of growing sunflower sea stars from larvae for eventual reintroduction into the wild. While sunflower sea stars were once very common in California and throughout the northern Pacific coast, a disease wiped most of them out in 2015 and they are now extinct in California. I will give a 20-minute presentation about the project and then answer questions afterwards. I hope you can make it.

Topic: Sunflower Star Laboratory
Time: Aug 3, 2021 02:00 PM Pacific Time (US and Canada)

Join Zoom Meeting:
https://us02web.zoom.us/j/88209095403
Meeting ID: 882 0909 5403
Passcode: 201298
 
OP
Brett Hatch

Brett Hatch

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I did attend Vince's webinar on Tuesday. Unfortunately they had some sort of technical problem, so it was not recorded. He says in a FB thread that he may try to re-record it, but of course the questions/discussions won't be there. Basically, he wants to form a new non-profit company that will build a lab where they will propagate sunflower starfish from the surviving larvae from up North in or near the Puget Sound. He is working on getting a board of directors, permits, funding, and staffing.

As for location, the Monterey Abalone Company has a barge in the harbor they used to propagate abalone for awhile. But the barge has been unused for a number of years, and it is looking like a good candidate for his lab; he's working out the details with them. If the lab gets built on the barge, he'll need to install solar panels to provide power. He estimates that initial construction costs will be in the $100k - $150k range. Some of the lab operations and maintenance can be done by volunteers. Vince himself is retired, so his personal contributions will not require a salary, but down the line, some paid positions will be required as well

At this point, he's not quite ready for hands-on volunteers, but he is looking for help. If you are interested and want to contribute in any way, please email Vince directly at autotropheater@gmail.com with your contact info, what you can contribute, approximately how much time you can offer, and any salary needs. If I recall correctly, what he needs most right now is: scientists to form the board of directors who will direct the lab work, people with know-how regarding permitting / CA DFW, and philanthropists to provide funding. So if you are a marine ecologist, aquaculturist, or a scientist of some related discipline, do reach out.

By the way, CNN recently put together a 13-minute documentary and an article, describing the issues in pretty good detail. It's been making the rounds, but if you have not seen it yet, have a look. It focuses on two main issues. The first is the 3-species predation cycle of kelp, urchins, and the sea stars. The other big idea is how global warming is likely contributing to the sea star wasting disease, which indirectly harms the kelp, which in turn leads to more atmospheric carbon, and further climate change. Overall, I thought it did a good job of explaining these somewhat complicated ecological relationships in a way that anybody can understand.
 

Eric Sedletzky

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Wow, Super cool!
I’m so glad more people are concerned and doing something.
It gives me hope.
 

wedivebc

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Since all the sunstars on the west coast are currently succumbing to this disease before they reach full size, introducing more potential victims to the environment will likely not succeed in the desired result. I have not seen a full grown adult sunstar in years, putting more juveniles into the environment will most likely allow the virus that is killing them to propagate.
There needs to be a serious, peer reviewed study into the cause of the decimation before artificially introducing more potential victims into the environment.
 
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Brett Hatch

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Since all the sunstars on the west coast are currently succumbing to this disease before they reach full size, introducing more potential victims to the environment will likely not succeed in the desired result. I have not seen a full grown adult sunstar in years, putting more juveniles into the environment will most likely allow the virus that is killing them to propagate.
There needs to be a serious, peer reviewed study into the cause of the decimation before artificially introducing more potential victims into the environment.

Hi Dave, I agree with most of these factual statements, but disagree with your conclusion -- serious studies are what the proposed lab is all about.

It's my impression that the disease is poorly understood. Like, we don't know whether it is bacteria or a virus, what the mechanism is that causes the stars to melt, or how the disease spreads. I'm not a biologist, so I'm probably wrong on some of those details, but it seems that the consensus among the scientific community amounts to a shrug. Propagating the stars in a lab setting will provide scientists an opportunity to better understand the virus, and any sea star traits that might help them fight it off.

One possibility Vince mentioned in the presentation, is that there may be a genetic component to the surviving stars. If that is the case, then using stars descended from those surviving in the Sound might fair better. On the other hand, the WA / BC / AK stars might be doing better just because the water is colder, different diets, or some other variable. By trying it out, we can better evaluate whether genes matter here. You may be aware of the lab in Friday Harbor doing similar work, they have had some success with breeding in captivity. This in-water lab will be able to do different kinds of experiments, which will hopefully complement the work being done on San Juan island.
 

wedivebc

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Hi Dave, I agree with most of these factual statements, but disagree with your conclusion -- serious studies are what the proposed lab is all about.

It's my impression that the disease is poorly understood. Like, we don't know whether it is bacteria or a virus, what the mechanism is that causes the stars to melt, or how the disease spreads. I'm not a biologist, so I'm probably wrong on some of those details, but it seems that the consensus among the scientific community amounts to a shrug. Propagating the stars in a lab setting will provide scientists an opportunity to better understand the virus, and any sea star traits that might help them fight it off.

One possibility Vince mentioned in the presentation, is that there may be a genetic component to the surviving stars. If that is the case, then using stars descended from those surviving in the Sound might fair better. On the other hand, the WA / BC / AK stars might be doing better just because the water is colder, different diets, or some other variable. By trying it out, we can better evaluate whether genes matter here. You may be aware of the lab in Friday Harbor doing similar work, they have had some success with breeding in captivity. This in-water lab will be able to do different kinds of experiments, which will hopefully complement the work being done on San Juan island.

I live in BC on Vancouver Island and I can say I have not seen an adult fully grown sun star in over 5 years so I am skeptical about the hypothesis that there are genetically more robust specemens in the wild, at least I have yet to see one. They seem to get close to adulthood and they do at least reach breeding age but eventually they all seem to succumb.to this disease. I am not saying don't study this situation and sun stars are obviously a vital part of the eco system. I have had the pleasure of diving the wonderful kelp forests found in your area . I do see the importance of this work I just hope it is conducted using sound scientific principles and not just throwing more fuel on the fire. Human interference in ecosystems have frequently resulted in a situation worse than the one the humand were attempting to resolve.
 

RyanT

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