Nightly News   |  November 29, 2013

Ocean mystery: Disease kills millions of Starfish

Top researchers go on a fact-finding mission to figure out why the millions of Starfish are dying at an alarming rate on the West Coast, including Washington and all along the coast of California. NBC's Miguel Almaguer reports.

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This content comes from Closed Captioning that was broadcast along with this program.

>>> environmental officials in california say there's been a highly troubling report about what's going on in the pacific. the scientists call it the sea star wasting syndrome . that's the technical name. something is killing the starfish and they don't know why. they have been dying in record numbers on the west coast including parts of washington state all along the coast down to california . our report tonight from nbc's miguel almaguer.

>> reporter: in the waters off monterrey bay, an urgent expedition is under way. this is the hunt for a killer.

>> it's happened so rapidly that some species are just missing.

>> reporter: marine biologist pete romandi is looking for clues to an epidemic affecting waters from alaska to southern california causing millions of starfish to fall apart and melt away.

>> our group is looking to try to map the timing of the onset of the disease and locations of the disease up and down the coast so it will help us point to causes.

>> reporter: the die-off decimated the starfish population in this cove. two species that used to thrive here have now vanished. sea stars , commonly known as starfish, are natural predators feeding on mussels and clams that can tip this fragile eco-system out of balance.

>> are you worried this could be the canary in the coal mine ?

>> absolutely.

>> reporter: dr. michael murray says the disease penetrated the filtration system at the monterrey bay aquarium.

>> we draw the water from the bay. whatever is in the water is affecting our animals as well.

>> reporter: it's happened before . in the '80s and '90s starfish wasting disease knocked out pockets of keechs in these waters. nothing has been seen like this. now scientists are focused on warmer water, lower oxygen levels and ocean acidify indication as possible causes. nothing is off the table.

>> i have had probably a hundred e-mails saying what about fukushima because of radiation? we haven't ruled it out.

>> reporter: the disease has spread to at least ten species of wstarfish and is threatening more every day. miguel almaguer, nbc news, monterrey , california .