UVI Leading Fight Against Coral Disease

Chart shows distribution of coral affected by SCTLD.
Chart shows distribution of coral affected by SCTLD.
Brain coral with SCTLD on Feb. 2. (Photo by Joseph Townsend)
Brain coral with SCTLD on Feb. 2. (Photo by Joseph Townsend)

The National Science Foundation has funded a $200,000 Coral Disease Outbreak Response Plan, and the University of the Virgin Islands has a lead role among seven marine science institutions involved.

First detected on the coral reefs off Florida in 2104, Stony Coral Tissue Loss Disease is now ravaging the corals of the Virgin Islands.

On Dec. 14, scuba diving scientists from UVI noted the corals around Flat Cay were “happy and perfect,” according to Dr. Marilyn Brandt, UVI research associate professor of marine and environmental science. Then, on Jan. 29, Steve Prosterman, UVI dive safety officer, surveyed the same reef and noted the disease for the first time in the Virgin Islands.

“Scientists spent a couple of years debating if there was a problem, Brandt said. “Now we have the benefit of two years of the best minds working on it.”

Stony Coral Tissue Loss Disease differs from the “bleaching” that is damaging coral reefs around the world. Bleaching is caused by thermal stress and begins by killing symbiotic algae that lives on corals. There is a chance bleached corals can recover over time.

STCLD appears to be a spreading pathogen, and the white color is from “tissue sloughing off, and kills an entire coral in five weeks,” Brandt said.

The way the disease spreads in clusters suggests an infectious disease, and there is some evidence in transmission experiments that it responds to antibiotic paste applied to the coral. Scientist are working to determine whether it is a bacteria or virus.

One theory is that a pathogen started spreading after the PortMiami Deep Dredge Project, begun in 2014 and completed in 2016 as part of the New Panamax project, which made way for larger cargo ships wanting access to ports and the Panama Canal.

Since then, the disease has been reported in Mexico, St. Maarten, Jamaica, and the USVI.

In April, the NSF awarded the $200,000 grant and tasked the following institutions to combat the disease:
– UVI – Lead on the grant, with specialty in coral disease ecology,
– Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute of Massachusetts, focusing on microbiology and bacteria,
– Mote Marine Laboratory of Florida, comparing samples taken since 2014,
– Louisiana State University, tasked with oceanographic modeling and histology,
– Rice University, studying microbiology and viruses, and
– University of Texas in Arlington, studying coral immune responses.

In addition to the ecological damage, economies that rely on tourism and the attraction of diving on tropical reefs are at risk.

Courtnie Robenolt, managing instructor at Aqua Action Dive Center on St. Thomas, reported seeing the disease now effecting the coral that grew on the wreck of the Miss Opportunity, situated on the west side of St. Thomas.

“The coral on the wreck is devastated by the disease. So sad,” Robenolt said.

Robenolt usually leads visiting scuba diver to sites off to the southeast of St. Thomas, including Buck Island, and has not seen the disease on these reefs yet. She is worried the disease will damage what she sees as “some of the most beautifully diverse reef ecosystems on Earth.”

UVI, the Department of Parks and Natural Resources, as well as the Virgin Islands Established Program to Stimulate Competitive Research (VI-EPSCoR), are supporting documentation and decontamination protocols, and encourage divers to report any sitings of the disease.

Brandt said “divers should wash their gear with antibacterial soap and then dry thoroughly” after every dive as part of efforts  to stop the spread of the disease.