The Department Of Marine & Wildlife Resources

The Department Of Marine & Wildlife Resources

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Invasion of the Starfish

The Crown-of-thorns Starfish (Acanthaster planci), aka COTS or 'alamea, have been popularly known for killing corals and their poisonous spines. In the late 1970’s and early 1980’s, large numbers of the starfish were found in the waters of American Samoa and contributed to more than 80% loss of corals in Tututila.  Although considered native, it is normal to see one or two in the village reef.  Therefore, larger numbers ranging in the 10s or 20s would be considered abnormal.  In 1977, an unusually large number of alamea were sighted and led to the removal of 480,000 starfish.  There were still more starfish left on the reef and there was a great impact in fish populations (Buckley, 1986).  It is estimated to take more than 50 years for corals to recover from an outbreak and presently, the coral reefs of American Samoa haven’t completely recovered.

What kind of starfish is this?  It’s a starfish like no other.  No, it doesn’t have five arms and is pretty enough to pick off the reef.  This starfish is can grow up to 21 arms covered with poisonous spines.  They eat coral tissue and can cause serious damage to the coral reefs of our territory.  In 2012, large numbers of ‘alamea were seen on the reef of Tutuila.  Collaborative efforts by the Department of Marine & Wildlife Resources, National Parks of American Samoa, National Marine Sanctuaries of American Samoa and the American Samoa Community College (ASCC) Marine Science 
Program to remove the starfish from the reef from 2012 to 2014 have reached 15,000!  Hundreds and thousands of 'alamea were found mostly on the north side of the island of Tutuila, including some of our Village MPAs:  Fagasa and Fagamalo.  

We, Samoans, have always believed that every living thing has a purpose - E tofu meaola ma lona aoga.  Unfortunately, there haven't been any benefits found through research and experience.  Like mentioned before, their spines are poisonous!  

If you ever get stung by a Crown-of-thorns starfish, try to squeeze out the poison and spine from the would using tweezers.  Then soak the wound in hot water (hot enough to endured for a long period) for more than an hour so the venom can decompose.  Be advised, do NOT cover the wound with a band-aid, tape or dressing.  If you experience difficulty breathing or numbness or if the pain and swelling continues, see a doctor as soon as possible.  Although there is a Samoan proverb:  fofō le 'alamea le 'alamea.  This means you can use the same poisonous starfish to treat the poison.  You carefully turn the 'alamea upside down and place your wound on its tube feet and it will suck out the poison.  I suppose you can say, this is ONE good deed by the starfish. 

The removal of the starfish is still ongoing since the sightings in 2012.  Initially, the removal of the starfish are by the use of spears.  They were collected into wired bins and brought to shore to be measured and killed by having them sundried.  These starfish were at one time, given to farmers to be used as fertilizers on their plantations.  It was a strenuous job to collect and spread them to be killed.  This is no longer practiced since another method has been introduced.  Now, they are being injected by Ox bile, which is a more effective method that has been practiced on the corals of the Great Barrier Reef.  

Efforts in removing this starfish is still ongoing.  Greatest appreciation and gratitude to our collaborative partners in the efforts to eradicate the starfish from our territorial waters. If you see this starfish in your village reef area, contact us at (684) 633-4456.  We will send a team to evaluate the damage and remove as much starfish from your area.   

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