Crown of Thorns Starfish (COTS)
Coral reefs are undergoing a worldwide crisis and being lost at an alarming rate. Climate change, overfishing, and pollution are all taking their toll, but some corals face an additional problem: they are being eaten alive. Outbreaks of Crown of Thorns Starfish (COTS), a voracious coral predator, are a significant threat to coral reefs in the Indo-Pacific region. If outbreaks of these coral killers are not controlled immediately they will continue to spread. When severe outbreaks of COTS occur, they often exceed 1,000 animals per hectare and are capable of destroying an entire reef system in a matter of weeks.
Crown of Thorns Starfish, Acanthaster planci, are the second largest starfish in the world and can grow to be over half a meter wide. They almost exclusively eat coral as adults – and they eat a lot of it. A single COTS can devour 10 square meters of coral a year. Covered in venomous spines (from which the starfish gets its name), COTS have few natural predators. They also happen to be extremely fecund, capable of producing 50 million eggs in the course of a breeding season, leading to outbreaks when the right environmental conditions occur.
The Starfish Control and Removal (SCAR) Program
In 2015, the Khaled bin Sultan Living Oceans Foundation launched the Starfish Control and Removal (SCAR) Program to combat COTS outbreaks. The primary goals of the SCAR program are to:
- Control and remove COTS during an outbreak
We rapidly control and remove COTS during an outbreak, mitigating damage to the coral reef. During the removal process, our team of scientists records the distribution and abundance of COTS as well as their prey preferences and feeding rates. They also assess the extent of the damage to corals in the area. Genetic samples are taken, and we attempt to determine the source population and patterns of spread. Scientists return to these same reefs after the COTS outbreak to survey the health of the coral reef and collect data on the rate and pattern of recovery.
- Train people to safely combat a COTS outbreak
Training sessions and seminars are held for local dive operators, communities, resort staff, and tourists focusing on COTS ecology and techniques to locally eradicate this species from the reef.
- Provide a global database on COTS
The SCAR program will act as a central location for reporting COTS outbreaks and serve as a repository for global data on COTS occurrence and impacts.
Countries in the Indo-Pacific depend heavily on their coral reefs and associated resources for food, revenue, and protection from storms. Without corals, the fish that depend on reefs for feeding, shelter and breeding grounds will disappear. With millions of tourists visiting coral reef nations every year, COTS outbreaks have the potential to have a devastating impact on coastal communities across the region. Although it isn’t feasible to prevent outbreaks of COTS from occurring, localized efforts to irradiate the species have proven to be successful at preventing a reef from being decimated by COTS and maintaining the health and resiliency of the coral reef.
Mitigating the Impacts of Acanthaster planci (crown of thorns starfish, COTS) outbreak on coral reefs in Aitutaki, Cook Islands
This Aitutaki COTS Outbreak Report was prepared for the Government of the Cook Islands and local Stakeholders by the Living Oceans Foundation Chief Scientist who conducted the Cook Islands mission of the Global Reef Expedition in 2013. Mitigating the Impacts of …
Anantara offers guests a diving holiday with a difference: a Five-Day Marine Expedition
Anantara Dhigu and Anantara Veli Resorts in South Malé Atoll, Maldives, are excited to announce they will be hosting a team of marine biologists from The Khaled bin Sultan Living Oceans Foundation (KSLOF) 26 October to 1 November 2015. Led by …
Scientists say a plague of sea stars is devastating Pacific coral reefs
This article, featured in the Washington Post, puts national public focus on the increasing threat posed to coral reefs by crown-of-thorns starfish (COTS), as highlighted by the Foundation’s Starfish Collection and Removal (SCAR) Team work in the Maldives. Scientists say …
Divers Remove Over 7,000 Deadly Starfish
ANNAPOLIS, MD – During October and November the Khaled bin Sultan Living Oceans Foundation removed more than seven thousand (7,396) coral-eating Crown of Thorns starfish (COTS) from vulnerable reefs in the Maldives. Foundation scientists worked with divers from local resorts …