Marine scientists are scrambling to determine the extent and cause of a disease that is killing starfish along the West Coast, including Sonoma County.
The affliction, called sea star wasting disease, has killed up to 95 percent of the stars in some tide pool populations ranging from southeast Alaska to Santa Barbara in a manner similar to scenes from a horror movie.
"They essentially melt in front of you," said Pete Raimondi, chairman of the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at UC Santa Cruz's Long Marine Lab.
Stricken starfish develop white lesions that expand and sometimes turn ulcerous, then the stars start losing arms and finally — all in a matter of days or weeks — disintegrate into what some observers have described as "goo."
In September, starfish in an aquarium at the Gulf of the Farallones National Marine Sanctuary visitor center at the San Francisco Presidio turned sickly and perished in water pumped from the ocean.
The aquarium's other occupants — including eels, sculpin and anemones — were unaffected.
The disease has struck localized coastal areas before, most notably in Southern California in 1983-84, but is already far more widespread, and its full extent is unknown.
"We've never seen it at this scale up and down the coast," Raimondi said.
Two scientists from his staff are launching a blitz this week, intent on "sweeping the coast" of California, Oregon and Washington to quantify the outbreak over the next three to five months.
At the same time, UC Santa Cruz is conducting its annual sampling of tide pool conditions at 80 sites along the West Coast.