What is attacking Florida’s coral reefs? It’s not the damage that occurs as a hurricane passes through, nor is it the bleaching away of brilliant colors caused by extreme ocean warming events. This is a slow, insidious disease that attacks hard corals, leaving sickened and dying tissue. What is the mysterious disease devastating Florida’s Coral Reefs?
Scientists have witnessed coral “tissue-loss diseases” before, most occur with higher “water temperatures that create favorable conditions for bacteria and viruses to grow.” As water temperatures cool, these diseases usually disappear. This new disease is different. First seen on Florida’s reefs in 2014, this infection which causes hard corals to turn a brilliant white, is still present four years later and continues to spread. (photo – Rick Loomis, Los Angeles Times)
Scientists are rushing to learn more about this disease as it spreads from the upper Florida Keys further south toward the lower keys, where it can threaten the last and most healthy coral reef in the continental United States.
“It’s surprised us as scientists, because most disease outbreaks don’t last this long,” said Erinn Muller of Mote Marine Laboratory’s Center for Coral Reef Research and Restoration. “We all kept expecting it to go away with the winter months but it never did.” Underscoring the scarcity of understanding into the causes of coral disease.
This is of particular significance in the Caribbean which is home to 8% of the ocean’s coral reefs but 70% of coral disease. What seems apparent is that when reefs are stressed by global warming they become increasingly more vulnerable to coral disease. And it is not just global warming, coral reefs face a barrage of threats including sewage and agricultural pollution and sedimentation.
Disease devastating Florida’s Coral Reefs has happened before!
In the late 1970’s and into the 80’s a “white-band” disease began in the U.S. Virgin Islands and eventually spread into the Caribbean and Florida Keys. That disease targeted staghorn and elkhorn, two types of fast-growing, branching coral that were common throughout the Caribbean. Somehow white-band disease was able to jump vast geographic gaps, a trait that it shares with today’s disease. (photo – Global Coral Disease Database)
Eventually 90% of these distinctive branching corals were dead. Today they have yet to recover and are on the list of Endangered Species.
What is different with today’s tissue-loss disease is that it attacks the huge mounding corals that form much of what remains after “white-band” ravaged these reefs. For certain species like the spectacular pillar coral, that is already endangered, (only 70 individual colonies of pillar coral remain in Florida) this might prove to be a death sentence.
Can Florida’s Coral be Saved?
There may be hope. The Keys Marine Lab has been treating corals with an antibiotic. First, as much of the diseased tissue is removed as possible, creating a sort of “firebreak.” Then the antibiotic, in the form of a sticky-paste, is applied to the healthy coral. In the lab, coral appears to recover quickly, however challenges remain in applying this treatment to a wider reef environment.
One place that they may attempt a field study would be on the 70 pillar corals that remain in the wild. (photo – Mote Marine Laboratory)
Another hopeful circumstance is that corals that have been grown at the Mote Marine Lab as part of their coral reef restoration program display a resilience to the disease. See the full report by Amelia Urry in Oceans Deeply.
By Robert Frerck, Blue Ocean Network
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Summit: 2015, Citizen Science, Dive Tourism as tools for conservation, The value of coral reefs. Local activism and engagement.
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