Stony coral tissue loss disease spreads through the northern Caribbean

Stony coral tissue loss disease. Image: via US NOAA

In recent weeks both St. Maarten and the US Virgin Islands have reported cases of stony coral tissue loss disease.

The first incidence of stony coral tissue loss disease was recorded in 2014 in Miami-Dade county in Florida, and the disease has since spread south through the Florida Keys. Outbreaks have been observed in Mexico and Jamaica, as well as St. Maarten and the USVI.

According to the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (US NOAA), this coral disease event is of unique concern because of “its large geographic range, extended duration, rapid progression, high rates of mortality and the number of species affected”. The exact causes of the disease, pathogenic or otherwise, have yet to be identified, but it is suspected that the disease is caused by bacteria, and transmitted via direct contact and water circulation.

The Nature Foundation St. Maarten reports:

The Nature Foundation St Maarten recently established the presence of ‘Tissue Loss Disease’ on several local coral reefs, the Foundation was able to establish through further investigation that in many locations some 90% of coral is either infected or dead.

“In June 2018 we sent out a warning to our local dive operators about the coral disease which started in Florida and impacted Jamaican reefs by that time, unfortunately since October we started to notice the disease starting to affect our local coral here. After follow up surveys we were able to establish that in some cases 90% of our coral is either infected or dead” stated Melanie Meijer zu Schlochtern, Project Officer at the Nature Foundation.

Sint Maarten can unfortunately now be added to the list of affect areas for tissue loss disease. …“Local reefs have already been hit hard due to Hurricane Irma and human activities such as pollution, nutrient run off, overfishing and climate change. Therefore the detected disease together with increased incidents of sewage and other pollutants being entered into the environment is an existential threat to our coral reefs. We have also seen Nutrient Indicator Algae appear in areas where it was largely absent, including in our coral nursery. We are now very concerned about our coral’s capacity to recover,” commented Nature Foundation Director Tadzio Bervoets.

And in the USVI:

The Department of Planning and Natural Resources (DPNR) announced that the Division of Coastal Zone Management (CZM) is alerting the Virgin Islands community of the emergence of the Stony Coral Tissue Loss Disease (SCTLD), which was recently found on St. Thomas.

SCTLD is a lethal coral disease that can affect roughly half of the coral species in the US Virgin Islands. The cause of the disease is unknown, but scientists do know that it is transmittable through water. SCTLD will attack all stony corals, but will affect brain and pillar corals first, and then move quickly through the rest of the stony coral, leaving behind large areas of bright white skeletons, DPNR said.  SCTLD doesn’t pose a threat to human health, but will damage corals that provide food, tourism value, and physical protection from waves during storms…

DPNR is asking the general public to be on the look out for this disease when swimming, snorkeling, or diving throughout the territory. Look for large areas of bright white skeleton on corals, especially on brain and pillar corals. 

The DPNR has set up a webpage dedicated to sharing information about the occurrence and spread of stony coral tissue loss disease in the USVI.

The US NOAA has more information about stony tissue coral loss disease, its spread and its impact.

[Image: via US NOAA]

I have photo documentation that may show stony tissue loss damage as early a Nov 24, 2009 in the lagoon surrounding the island of Long Caye, Belize.

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