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Scientists Stumped By West Coast Sardine, Starfish Die-Off

SAN PEDRO ( — What is causing some marine life along the West Coast to disintegrate and die-off?

KNX1070's Brian Ping reports a mysterious disease is decimating a breed of starfish even as federal officials are slashing projected West Coast sardine harvests.

Scientists Stumped By West Coast Sardine, Starfish Die-Off

Scientists say an outbreak of "sea star wasting disease," an affliction that causes starfish to develop white lesions, lose arms, and eventually disintegrate, is spreading at a rapid rate from Southern California all the way up to Alaska.

The disease has killed off some 95 percent of orange and purple starfish that are commonly found in West Coast tide pool populations, according to the Associated Press.

The starfish dine on mussels, so scientists also worry that a collapse in the population will allow mussels to multiply unchecked, crowding out other species.

Mike Schaadt, Director of the Cabrillo Marine Aquarium in San Pedro, said while the mystery disease appears to be a pathogen that is exacerbated in warm water through the summer and fall seasons, it is unlikely to pose a long-term ecological threat.

"There is no indication that it has any connection to anything other than a natural occurrence; it is following a pattern that we've seen before," Schaadt said. "So there's no indication that this has some other connection."

About five years ago, a similar outbreak decimated about 90 percent of the starfish breed, only to see population numbers bounce back to normal, Schaadt added.

But it isn't just starfish that are stumping scientists.

Federal fisheries managers have cut projections for West Coast sardine harvests by two-thirds while scientists try to get a better handle on indications the population is entering a significant down cycle.

The Pacific Fishery Management Council voted 7-6 Sunday in Costa Mesa to set the overall harvest level for California, Oregon and Washington at about 7,000 metric tons for the first six months of 2014.

The issue will be taken up again after a new and more complete population assessment is issued in April.

Council member Marci Yaremko of the California Department of Fish and Wildlife says the council decided to take an even more precautionary approach than management guidelines call for because of evidence that few young sardines are joining the population.

(TM and © Copyright 2013 CBS Local Media, a division of CBS Radio Inc. and its relevant subsidiaries. CBS RADIO and EYE Logo TM and Copyright 2013 CBS Broadcasting Inc. Used under license. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. The Associated Press contributed to this report.)

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