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Mysterious disease killing off starfish in oceans, aquariums

An underwater disease is killing starfish up and down the West Coast. There are fears this disease could spread even further.
An underwater disease is killing starfish up and down the West Coast. There are fears this disease could spread even further. It's having an impact on the ocean food chain.

In the tide pools of the Pacific and under the pier at Manhattan Beach, there once was an abundance of flourishing, colorful starfish.

But Eric Martin, co-director of the Marine Studies Lab and Aquarium, says that over the past eight months a mysterious disease has been killing them off by the thousands.

"It's devastating, because when you're snorkeling you see all these sea stars all over the place, all the different colors, and now the rocks are just getting barren," said Martin.

It starts with white blotches and eventually their bodies start to disintegrate, they lose their legs and they basically turn into a pile of mush.

"Nobody at this moment can actually pinpoint what's the cause of the disease, and what's the extent of it," said Martin.

Scientists think it's a bacterial disease, but are not sure how to stem it. Martin says it has also begun to spread to the East Coast. At the Roundhouse Marine Studies Lab and Aquarium in Manhattan Beach, several different species have died.

"It just wasn't one sea star going per day, it would be three to five per day, until finally we were getting wiped out, and it's affecting other aquariums."

Martin says the disease could seriously affect the food chain: With no starfish to keep the mussel population in check, they could then take over kelp beds.

Martin says he has started to see a slight comeback in recent weeks, possibly because sea stars release eggs when they are stressed. He just hopes he keeps seeing more colorful stars in the ocean, and at his aquarium.

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