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Researchers to study decline in kelp and sea stars along Oregon Coast

Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife
ODFW staff conducting snorkel surveys at Nellies Cove to document unusually high densities of purple sea urchins in shallow water rocky reef sites.

The populations of sunflower sea stars, bull kelp and abalone have all been declining across the Southern Oregon coast. A recent $250,000 federal grant has been awarded to the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife to study the decline.

Since a marine heatwave from 2013 to 2015, there have been important ecosystem changes on the Oregon Coast. The populations of bull kelp, sunflower sea stars and other important marine species like abalone have been on the decline. At the same time, the population of purple sea urchins is rising rapidly.

The Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife Marine Resources Program was recently awarded a $250,000 grant to study those ecological changes.

Steve Rumrill is the Shellfish Program Leader at the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife. He says very little is known about the causation of these population changes.

“It makes sense to think that there's trophic or food web relationships directly controlling all of this but we don't have field experiments or laboratory experiments to directly show the cause-effect relationship,” he says.

The money from the grant will go fund SCUBA divers and remotely operated vehicles to survey the changes in the coastal environment. It will also fund equipment to monitor ocean temperatures and oxygen levels.

Researchers are already running some field tests to see why the bull kelp in the area is not growing.

“One of the thoughts is that the grazing by the purple sea urchins has not allowed the kelp to come back, even when temperatures are okay,” says Rumrill. “So we are working with volunteer divers and so far the divers have removed over 40,000 sea urchins from a particular cove down in Port Orford.”

Rumrill says researchers are considering experiments to study the decline of bull kelp habitat. Some of these include artificially enhancing kelp spores, placing sunflower sea stars to help control the purple sea urchins or even reintroducing sea otters to eat the urchins.

Sophia Prince is a reporter and producer for JPR News. She began as JPR’s 2021 summer intern through the Charles Snowden Program for Excellence in Journalism. She graduated from the University of Oregon with a BA in journalism and international studies.