Omaha Zoo hits breakthrough on sea star conservation

Omaha's Henry Doorly Zoo and Aquarium is leading the fight in the protection of an endangered sea star species.
Published: Mar. 16, 2023 at 6:56 PM CDT
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OMAHA, Neb. (WOWT) - The sunflower sea star at Omaha’s Henry Doorly Zoo and Aquarium lives with predatory fish, but its hungry roommates are the least of its concern.

“Sea star wasting disease came through quite a few years ago and that pretty much decimated the population,” said Ben Morrow, an aquarist at the Omaha Zoo. “Certain other species of stars have been able to recoup their numbers, but the sunflower star’s not ever really come back.”

Morrow is spearheading a conservation project to help save the species alongside a lab at the University of Washington.

“They’re endangered on the West Coast right now, and so our project here is actually to utilize aquaculture to try and raise them in a significant amount of numbers. We’ll reintroduce those to the west coast as the final part of the project and try to establish that population in the wild,” he said.

He’s recently hit a milestone. By fertilizing and raising the sea stars in a controlled environment, he’s seen them hit metamorphosis, the next stage of development.

“I’m optimistic because we’re having some success we’re the second institution to be really working on these guys with the Harbor Labs,” said Morrow. “But we’re getting settlement numbers and now we just have to increase them. Once that happens, we’re ready to really make an impact on the ocean.”

Morrow says this project will take three years, and more labs across the country are interested in following Omaha’s lead.