New Research Shows Sea Stars Are Key To Restoring Kelp Forests.

New Research Shows Sea Stars Are Key To Restoring Kelp Forests.
Reading Time: 3 minutes

New Research Shows Sea Stars Are Key To Restoring Kelp Forests. Source: Unsplash

Reading Time: 3 minutes

When most people think of forests, they generally think of terrestrial trees dominating the natural landscape of hills and mountains. However, some of the most important forests are underwater and make just as much, if not more, of an impact on our environment than land-based forests.

These are kelp forests; they sequester carbon, filter the water, and provide an incredibly important food source to the wildlife in the area. However, kelp forests are at significant risk as climate change and habitat destruction have taken their toll on important underwater ecosystems. However, researchers at Oregon State University have discovered that another endangered species could be a key to restoring kelp forests in coastal waters around the world. This is the story of how restoring the sea star could bring back numbers of kelp forests and save an endangered and beautiful creature. 

Carbon sequestration is absolutely key to restoring our environment. This fact is well known, and strong efforts have been made to replant trees in areas devastated by logging. However, less focus has been put on marine ecosystems, even though they play an equally important role in regenerating our environment. A major reason why kelp forests are dying en masse is because of sea urchins. From the 18th through the 20th century, the fur trade was an incredibly lucrative industry worldwide. Sea otters took a major hit in their population and haven’t recovered to their full range or numbers.

Sea otters, though, are a keystone species in marine ecosystems. They feed on sea urchins, and without sea otters to keep urchin populations in check, urchins wreak havoc on kelp forests. Normally, sea urchins are scavengers eating dead kelp and other scraps along the ocean floor. However, once those food sources are gone, they turn to live kelp forests, often devastating the forests that are key to keeping the ocean waters clear and reducing carbon dioxide levels in our environment.

Research by Sarah Gravem out of Oregon State University shows that sea stars are key to solving this crisis of sea urchins. Sea stars don’t discriminate when it comes to what sea urchins they eat, and as a result, feast on the weakened sea urchins after the urchins have rampaged through kelp forests. Sea otters, however, are rather picky regarding the sea urchins they choose to eat. Unfortunately, sea stars are endangered due to sea star wasting disease, a poorly understood phenomenon that has nearly wiped out the sea star from their former range in some places entirely. Sea star reintroduction efforts would be good for the species as a whole while also protecting the kelp forests that greatly impact our environment. 

The practical reality of protecting our environment often comes down to protecting species that naturally moderate the effects of human activity. As humans have continued to develop new advanced technologies that can affect the world on such a large scale, we like to fashion ourselves the harbingers of the latest and greatest thing that can fix the mess that we’ve made. However, our friends in nature are truly the ones doing the necessary work to bring back our world from the brink of collapse.

Where we can help is the targeted and large-scale reintroduction of those species to help not only the species being reintroduced but the ecosystem as a whole. Each species in the ecosystem has a role to play, no one of those roles being any less important than the other. This is why reintroducing the sea star is so important; as urchin barrens continue to grow, we continue to lose carbon sinks that can sequester the dangerous amounts of GHGs we release into the atmosphere each day. We have seen that sea otter reintroduction programs are effective. If that same energy can be directed toward sea stars, there is good reason to hope that the sea urchin crisis in the marine environment can be temporary. 

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