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A highly contagious marine epidemic tears through Caribbean coral reefs | Environment

KRista Sherman understands that ocean conservation work takes a lot of patience. But the Bahamas-born marine scientist had never encountered an enemy like stony coral tissue loss disease (SCTLD), and after efforts to monitor and treat the highly contagious outbreak in the corals of the Bahamas stalled, his patience was running out.

“The disease is spreading very quickly. In some areas where we have been able to assess the rate of spread, we are looking at one mile per month,” says Sherman, a researcher in the Bahamas. Perry Institute for Marine Sciences.

“There is a shift underway at some sites, from healthy, vibrant reefs to what looks like a graveyard of coral. And it’s really devastating to see; it’s just heartbreaking.

A researcher cuts a Pseudodiploria strigosa, or brain coral, with a chisel to remove a portion killed by SCTLD in the US Virgin Islands. Photograph: Lucas Jackson/Reuters

First discovered in Florida in 2014, the disease, which scientists say is carried by ocean currents and commercial ships, has now been confirmed in 22 Caribbean countries and territories, according to data compiled by the Rapid Assessment of Atlantic and Gulf Reefs (AGRRA), a conservation organization that monitored the outbreak.

SCTLD afflicts more than 20 species of corals – including some of the largest and most important reef-building corals, which can take centuries to grow – chewing away their soft tissues until only a skeleton remains. Infected colonies can be wiped out within months. The seaweed moves in, leaving large swaths of a once colorful reef covered in a dull gray-green or red-brown fuzz.

Scientists have not yet identified the pathogen responsible for the disease. So far, the only effective treatment is to apply antibiotic paste to individual corals, a labor-intensive and expensive method. Once SCTLD infects a colony, any delay in response means more dead coral. Still, those involved in treatment efforts in the Caribbean say obstacles to their work are common – from pandemic lockdowns to lack of funding and government bureaucracy.

In the Bahamas, where SCTLD was first confirmed in December 2019, efforts to slow the spread have been put on hold while researchers wait for the government to issue them the necessary permit to study and treat the disease.

Three photos of a single coral showing the spread of bleached appearance as it dies
Composite showing the advance of SCTLD in a single coral colony of the Meandrina meanders species off Puerto Rico. From left to right: healthy, diseased and dead corals. Photography: Catalina Morales

Local conservationists got so frustrated that they started sound the alarm publicly. The pressure seemed to work. On March 18, the Bahamas Department of Planning and Environmental Protection authorized work to continue until June, when researchers will need to reapply.

In the Caribbean, “almost everyone is lagging behind because of how quickly this disease is progressing,” says Miguel Figuerola Hernández, a coral reef specialist with Puerto Rico‘s Department of Natural and Environmental Resources (DNER). “You really need to have an emergency fund just waiting for these kinds of disasters.”

SCTLD was also confirmed in Puerto Rico in December 2019, and in the two years since, efforts to treat the disease have not matched the scale of the problem, largely due to funding constraints. . There are now outbreaks of the disease all around the main island as well as on the reefs near the smaller islands of Vieques and Culebra.

Despite the threat to the environment and the economy of the island, it was not until August 2021 that the governor of Puerto Rico, Pedro Pierluisi, declared a ecological emergency on coral disease, allocating $1m (£750,000) in emergency funding to DNER to tackle the crisis. The agency submitted a strategic response plan in December, which was approved in March.

The funding would allow DNER to conduct crucial research and support 11 small groups of volunteers with the resources they needed, Figuerola Hernández says, including a long-term study of coral response to antibiotic treatment. So far, Figuerola Hernández and his colleagues have seen up to 70% efficiency.

During this time, DNER has partnered with local conservation organizations and corporate donations have helped provide antibiotics, snorkel gear and other supplies to volunteers. Still, there hasn’t been enough money for basic necessities, like fuel for boats, says Nilda Jiménez-Marrero, coordinator of the agency’s endangered species program.

“We are going to lose a lot,” she said. “It’s a very aggressive condition.

“The reefs will no longer be the same. But we’ll salvage what we can and hope they can recover.

Scale is a big challenge throughout the region. Puerto Rico alone has nearly 5,000 km2 (2,000 sq mi) of coral reefs. Processing involves identifying priority sites with the greatest abundance of large old corals and then processing thousands of individuals. The quantity of amoxicillin antibiotic ointment needed to treat 30 to 90 corals costs nearly $1,000.

In some cases, government action may also be delayed because officials resist public recognition of the disease for fear it will affect tourism, says Judith Lang, marine biologist who heads AGRRA.

A line of white antibiotic paste is applied to the brain coral, half of which appears bleached
An antibiotic paste is applied to endangered corals by the SCTLD at the University of the Virgin Islands in St Thomas. Photograph: L Jackson/Reuters

“They are already suffering from the consequences of the Covid pandemic, and the idea of ​​tourists staying away because of this is really scary,” she says.

Travel and tourism contribute more than 15% of the Caribbean’s GDP and nearly 14% of its jobs. For some, the Covid shutdowns came as a result of extreme weather events.

“It was first [Hurricane] Maria, then Covid, and now this,” says Simon Walsh, a dive shop owner in Dominica who led SCTLD treatment efforts there.

In March, Resilient Dominica (REZDM), a local program created in response to Hurricane Maria, agreed to provide $90,000 to pay three marine park rangers to monitor and treat SCTLD for one year.

That was good news, Walsh said. Until now, he has worked with other volunteers to process the coral, funded by revenue from the island’s Soufrière-Scott’s Head Marine Reserve, private donations and their own money. Walsh gets the job done even though he’s not a fan of in-water antibiotics. “I hate the idea,” he says. “But you know what I hate the most? Watching everything die.

Some countries, such as the Dominican Republic, ban antibiotics on the high seas due to concerns about long-term effects such as antibiotic resistance, and some scientists share this apprehension.

“We may be controlling disease progression, but we may be killing some of the essential bacteria that corals and other organisms need,” says Ernesto Weil, a professor of marine science at the University of Puerto Rico.

Because SCTLD is so aggressive, he thinks treating infected corals may not be the best use of resources, especially since researchers still don’t know the exact cause. “We should focus our resources and energy once the disease has passed through the reefs and then work with the survivors, because those survivors are resilient colonies,” he says.

Back in the Bahamas, researchers and volunteers began processing the coral, starting in the waters around New Providence Island. The Perry Institute and its partners also aim to establish a coral “gene bank” to preserve the Bahamas corals in the Atlantis resort aquarium. Although on a smaller scale, it will be similar to coral rescue efforts in Florida, where scientists collected vulnerable corals and sent them to aquariums across the country in hopes of one day repopulating coral reefs. Florida.

“There are so many people tackling these issues, so that gives me hope,” Sherman says. “I don’t know exactly what coral reefs will look like in the future, but their continued existence really depends on us.”