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Sea Star Protection Poised to Alter California Coastal Plans (1)

Dec. 27, 2021, 6:14 PMUpdated: Dec. 27, 2021, 8:13 PM

The Biden administration is considering listing the imperiled sunflower sea star as endangered or threatened, possibly requiring California to adapt some coastal climate change measures and other development to protect its habitat.

The National Marine Fisheries Service said Monday that it found merit in the Center for Biological Diversity’s petition to protect the sea star and will decide by August whether to list it under the Endangered Species Act.

If the agency decides to protect the sea star, it’ll draft a rule and ask for public comment before publishing a final rule at a later date.

The service hasn’t yet determined what measures developers would need to take to help protect the sea star if it’s listed, said Michael Milstein, spokesman for the West Coast Region of National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Fisheries, which oversees the service.

“Because we are just beginning the status review of the species it would be premature to speculate on what protections the species might need, or what effects they might have,” Milstein said.

One of the largest sea star species on earth, the sunflower sea star lives in tidal and sub-tidal areas along the West Coast from Alaska to Mexico and can grow to be nearly four feet wide.

Global warming is threatening the species, and the agency is taking an “important step toward protecting this beautiful species and the kelp forests it lives in,” Miyoko Sakashita, ocean program director at the Center for Biological Diversity, said in a statement.

‘Critically Endangered’

The International Union for the Conservation of Nature declared the sunflower sea star critically endangered in 2020 because its populations declined nearly 90% between 2000 and 2020.

Populations have been decimated by a wasting disease, possibly fueled by warming seas. Sunflower sea star habitat is threatened by coastal sea walls, shoreline industrial and other community development, ocean acidification, climate change-driven rising seas, and pesticides and other chemicals running off the land and into the ocean, according to the center’s petition.

Building sea walls and other shoreline modifications are among the possible climate change adaptation measures that the California Coastal Commission outlined in draft guidance published in August.

The guidance warned that endangered species habitat destruction is among the risks of building sea walls and shoreline “armoring” structures, and state law requires those risks to be minimized as much as possible.

The commission didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.

Sea wall, jetty, and other coastal construction known as shoreline hardening will continue “at about 200 kilometers per year, doubling the amount of armoring by the end of the century,” and further eroding the sea star’s habitat, according to the Center for Biological Diversity’s petition.

If the National Marine Fisheries Service eventually protects the sea star, developers would need to consult with the agency before a coastal project proceeds, Center for Biological Diversity spokeswoman Nyshie Perkinson said. If any sea stars are directly threatened by a project, the developer would need to obtain a federal permit, she said.

(Updated with comment in fourth and fifth paragraphs.)

To contact the reporter on this story: Bobby Magill at

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Chuck McCutcheon at