Marine Science field trip visits local NGO that aims to repopulate depleted sea star species critical to kelp forest health

Inside a Pebble Beach garage set up as both ocean nursery and marine laboratory, Ron Provost’s Marine Science elective visited Sunflower Star Lab ( last week to witness how independent citizen science, lab engineering, NGOs, and an abiding passion for the environment can provide a ray of hope for Pacific ocean ecosystems.

Citizen scientist Vince Christian shared his plan with the class to use his aquaculture lab to grow the large, predatory Sunflower Sea Star (Pycnopodia helianthoides). This species has been particularly hard-hit by the Sea Star Wasting Syndrome pandemic that has decimated sea star populations from Alaska to Mexico since 2013, a pandemic at least partly attributable to climate change. The keystone species is crucial to balance healthy kelp forest ecosystems due to its voracious appetite for sea urchins, a species that—without predators—can quickly lay waste to entire kelp forests.

Students learned about the intricacies and challenges of engineering a clean, cold, sea-water environment. They heard Mr. Christian explain his yearlong journey to perfect the growth of algae as larval food for echinoderms (like sea stars). He also discussed projects that will lead to cultures of Sunflower Star larvae that he hopes to nurse to juveniles, and ultimately, adulthood. In addition, the students were able to get a close-up view of Mr. Christian’s collection of 3,000 bat star larvae and over 300 sea urchin larvae.

In class, Mr. Provost brought up the loss of the Sunflower Sea Star as a 21st-century analog to the population loss that the Southern Sea Otter saw in the 19th and early 20th centuries, and the resulting collapse of the ocean ecosystems that followed. The field trip was a shining example of how small ideas can lead to big dreams, like saving a vital ocean ecosystem.