PORTLAND, Ore. (KOIN) – The Oregon Coast Aquarium is feeling a glimmer of hope after staff discovered the most sunflower sea stars in one location since the current bout of sea star wasting syndrome began decimating populations in 2013. 

According to the Oregon Coast Aquarium, 25 critically endangered sunflower sea stars were found in Yaquina Bay in Newport. 

Aquarium staff had been searching the bay for fish and invertebrates, which the aquarium is allowed to acquire a limited number of each year. During the search, they documented one adult and 24 juvenile sunflower sea stars. 

The largest one they found measured six inches across. Fully grown, the sea stars can reach up to four feet across and have as many as 26 arms. 

“We have to document this,” Tiffany Rudek, an aquarist at the Oregon Coast Aquarium, said when she began measuring the stars. “It’s incredible. It’s unprecedented. I am so excited about what this could mean for the species.”

Rudek has spent the last several years developing an effective treatment for sea stars impacted by stress, injury or disease, including those suffering with sea star wasting syndrome symptoms. 

From 2013 to 2017, sea star wasting syndrome caused a mass die off of sea stars along the Pacific Coast. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration estimates 90% of the sunflower sea star population died from the disease. 

Sunflower sea stars are native to the coastal waters of the Northeast Pacific Ocean and are a keystone species. They help control the sea urchin populations which in turn prevents the destruction of offshore kelp forests. These kelp forests are vital habitats for marine life, the Oregon Coast Aquarium said. 

Aquarium staff photographed and measured the 25 sunflower sea stars they found before carefully returning them to the sea floor. 

“This concentration of juvenile sunflower stars may be a precursor of the species’ recovery, though only time will tell,” the Oregon Coast Aquarium wrote in a press release.