KEY WEST, Fla. (Reuters) – Emily Hower, research assistant at Nova Southeastern University, who works in the coral field near Key West, Florida, gets out of the water and takes off her diving mask. The news is not good.
Most pillar corals that his team has been monitoring for years are dead.
Hower and his colleagues are racing against time to find out what causes a disease called Stony Coral Tissue Loss Disease, which since 2014 has been furious as hell through reefs under the deceptively calm blue Caribbean paradise.
In just five years, it has devastated fragile coral ecosystems that are already endangered by the effects of climate change.
Of the 40 Florida Keys reefs monitored by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, 38 are already affected.
"It's a huge disaster that is happening under the waves," says Karen Neely, a coral ecologist from Nova. “This is at the level of the burning of the Amazon. It is at the level of a disease that is wiping out all the forests of America. "
Lost Rocky Coral Tissue Disease attacks coral tissue, transforming healthy and vibrant marine ecosystems into monotonous worlds dead in weeks.
A labyrinthiformis Diplomatic colony exhibits a tissue loss of Stony Coral Tissue Loss Disease (SCTLD) near the University of Virgin Islands campus in St. Thomas, US Virgin Islands, May 15, 2019. REUTERS / Lucas Jackson
The disease devastated much of the Atlantic reef off Florida, spread to parts of the Caribbean, and was recently reported near Belize, Central America. The pillar coral, whose pointed-finger curls appear to reach the bottom of the sea, is "reproductively extinct" off the coast of Florida, says Keri O'Neil, Florida's chief aquarium coral scientist.
In the aquarium, a rare ray of hope comes from a room that goes out for much of the year. Here, an elaborate and expensive LED light system is designed to mimic sunrise, sunset and moon phases, to convince the pillars of the tanks to reproduce as if they were in the ocean.
Neely's team has also been laboriously applying a paste combined with amoxicillin to coral, which they say has been effective in treating the disease.
Stony coral loss disease kills more than 20 species of coral, including most of the major reef-building species, holding it together and protecting the shore, says Neely.
Scientists are working together to try to find solutions. A Disease Advisory Committee has been set up to help coordinate and scientists are conducting field work to reinforce each other's research. They are, they say, like first responders at the scene of a disaster.
Nevertheless, little is known about what causes the disease. In Sarasota, Erinn Muller and his team at the Mote Marine Marine Laboratory's Coral Reef Research and Restoration Center are among those trying to identify the pathogen behind it and how it spread from Florida to the Caribbean. "We're getting these jumps, and that suggests that there is some kind of human influence that is allowing this jump to occur," says Muller.
Near the beginning of 2019, was seen on the coast of the Virgin Islands. There, Marilyn Brandt of the Center for Marine and Environmental Studies at the University of the Virgin Islands, and her graduate students are pulling out the sick coral to try to prevent it from spreading.
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His team – like Neely and others – are joining forces and working frantically to prevent the loss of this delicate and complex underwater world with iridescent colors and undulating textures.
Such a loss would represent "a loss of biodiversity that could be a source for future medicines, the loss of fisheries, the loss of tourist value," says Brandt. "Many Caribbean islands have part of their coral reef-based culture and, if you lose them, you lose an aspect of their culture."
Photo essay here reut.rs/2lfuEtX
Report by Lucas Jackson, Rosalba O'Brien edition
Our standards:The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles. . (tagsToTranslate) USA (t) ENVIRONMENT (t) CORALS (t) SCIENTISTS (t) DIFFERENCE (t) Nature / Wildlife (t) USA. Virgin Islands (t) Pollution (t) South America / Central America (t) Belize (t) Science (t) Environment (t) Florida (t) Life Sciences (t) Tourism / Travel