As new disease wipes out Caribbean coral, scientists tear up reefs to stop the…

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ST THOMAS, Virgin Islands / NEW YORK (Reuters) – On the coast of St. Thomas in the US Virgin Islands, a group of scientists is destroying a reef in a feverish attempt to save some of its corals.

They are battling a rapidly evolving lethal disease that the researchers say is unprecedented in the speed with which it can damage a large number of coral species in the Caribbean Sea.

Breaking the fundamental rule of never touching the coral, scientists are removing sick specimens to try to stop the spread of the disease and save what's left.

Meanwhile, researchers and divers from Florida, where the disease was first detected in 2014, are also removing coral samples and sending them to places as far away as Kansas and Oklahoma, in a final effort to save 20 or more species. . be susceptible to what has been called Coral Coral Tissue Disease.

The disease leads to a rapid loss of tissue, first appearing as white spots that spread across the coral, before eventually dumping it of color and life.

About half of the coral species that make up Florida's reefs and about one-third of the Caribbean's are vulnerable to the disease, at a time when delicate ecosystems are already threatened by climate change.

Overall, Florida's Upper Keys reported a loss of over 40% in coral cover between 2013 and 2018, according to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission.

Stony coral tissue loss disease was identified in seven other Caribbean locations, according to the Florida Sea Grant, a federally funded university program. Unlike the best known phenomenon of coral bleaching, corals cannot normally recover from stony coral tissue loss disease. The species fall victim to it at different rates, with a mortality rate of 66 to 100%.

"I've never seen anything that affects so many species so quickly and so cruelly – and it continues," said Marilyn Brandt of the University of the Virgin Islands, who is one of the researchers involved in efforts to save nearby reefs. St. Thomas

"All the diseases I've studied in the past can be considered flu. They come every year, seasonally, and sometimes there are worse outbreaks. This thing is more like Ebola. It's a killer, and we don't know how to stop it."

Brandt's team first detected the disease along the west coast of St. Thomas in January and launched a frantic effort to stem its advance, resorting to the removal of sick coral with a hammer and chisel to try to save the rest.

"Coral basically liquefies from the inside out," said Brandt.


The disease was first identified near Miami, Florida, where the port was conducting a dredging project, and has now spread to almost the entire stretch of reef in the state.

The corals in the area were already stressed from dredging and a recent bleaching event, so it is not surprising that they have been hit by a disease, scientists told Reuters. As in the human body, a weakened immune system can make corals more susceptible to disease.

“We tend to just study these events. We monitor them. We try to research what to do. We just watched it happen and assume that Mother Nature will be able to take the reins and everything will be fine, ”said Maurizio Martinelli, Coral Disease Response Coordinator at Florida Sea Grant.

But the scale of the new disease has led to a more urgent approach. Large coral individuals that scientists estimated to be hundreds of years old die in a matter of several weeks, according to scientists' estimates.

"We can't watch all these corals die before us," said Martinelli.

Corals, which cover about 1% of Earth's surface, are animals that settle on the ocean floor and support more marine life than any other marine environment. In addition to supporting thousands of species of plants, fish and other marine species, they attract a large number of tourists, scientists and divers.

They also provide a natural flood barrier, preventing $ 1.8 billion damage to buildings, businesses and coastal economies and protecting over 18,000 citizens annually in the United States alone, according to a 2019 U.S. Geological Survey report.

But the federal budget to protect coral reefs has remained largely unchanged for years, and that left coral science in the "Middle Ages," said coral scientist William Precht.

Marilyn Brandt, associate professor of research at the University of Virgin Islands Center for Marine and Environmental Studies, applies an antibiotic paste to corals killed by Stony's Coral Tissue Disease (SCTLD) near the University of Virgin Islands campus in St Thomas in the US Virgin Islands, May 14, 2019. REUTERS / Lucas Jackson

The disease is probably the deadliest for coral since the so-called white-band disease emerged in the 1970s, nearly destroying two types of coral, he said.

"Now we are looking at a similar type of disease, but instead of affecting two species, it reaches 22," said Precht.

"The end result can be catastrophic."

Report by Lucas Jackson in the Virgin Islands and Chris Prentice in New York, Rosalba O'Brien edition

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