starfish A mysterious disease, known as starfish-wasting syndrome, has been killing starfish populations along North American coasts for months. Photo: YouTube

A devastating disease has been killing star fish, ripping their limbs apart and threatening the balance of ecosystems along North American coasts.

The mysterious disease, known as starfish-wasting syndrome, affected populations since last summer -- killing starfish in Vancouver Harbor and Howe Sound in Canada. In November, the disease killed up to 95 percent of the starfish populations from Alaska to Orange County, the Santa Rosa Press Democrat reported at the time. Now, the disease continues to decimate the starfish populations, and biologists are searching for clues on how and why the echinoderms are wasting away, KCTS reports.

“It certainly suggests that those ecosystems are not healthy,” Ben Miner, a biology professor at Western Washington University, said. “To have diseases that can affect that many species, that widespread is, I think is just scary.”

At first, the disease only infected one species, Pycnopodia helianthoides, also known as the sunflower star. Then the disease began to affect a more common starfish species known as the intertidal ochre star. Now, there are about a dozen species that are dying along the West Coast from starfish-wasting syndrome.

Scuba diver Laura James was one of the first to document the disease in the striped sun star and the morning sun star when they began to wash up on the shores of Puget Sound. On a dive, the underwater videographer discovered thousands of dead starfish.

“There were just bodies everywhere,” James said. “There were just splats. It looked like somebody had taken a laser gun and just zapped them and they just vaporized.”

The disease causes lesions on starfish skin that eventually decay, making the starfish lose their arms until they disintegrate and become “goo.” The disease could be caused by a bacterium or virus rather than a chemical or an environmental factor, Gary Wessel, a professor at Brown University who's investigating the disease, told NBC News. While the disease can be contagious between animals, it’s unlikely it would affect humans.

This isn’t the first time the disease has been reported.

In 1983-84, the disease hit Southern California, but it wasn’t as widespread as it is now, Pete Raimondi, chairman of the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at University of California, Santa Cruz's Long Marine Lab, said.

“We've never seen it at this scale up and down the coast,” Raimondi said.

Regardless of the cause, biologists are searching for clues behind the disease to protect the starfish species.

“These are ecologically important species,” Cornell University marine epidemiologist Drew Harvell said. “When you lose this many sea stars it will certainly change the seascape.”