Photo montage showing how the disease is affecting the coral.
COLE BAY--After Nature Foundation St Maarten recently established the presence of “Tissue Loss Disease” on several local coral reefs, it was able to establish through further investigation that in many locations some ninety per cent of coral is either infected or dead.
The disease is a relatively new issue that has been plaguing coral reefs in the Atlantic Basin for the last few months. The coral reef disease manifests itself through the creation of white blotches on stony coral, eventually leading to the loss of tissue and eventual death in the coral colony.
The disease affects 20 different species of coral and is able to kill colonies within several weeks or months. Unfortunately, the disease’s spread and lethality are being facilitated by poor water quality at several locations surrounding the island.
The foundation sent out a warning to dive operators in June 2018 about the coral disease which started in Florida and had impacted Jamaican reefs by that time. Unfortunately, the foundation has started to notice the disease affecting the local coral since October last year.
“After follow-up surveys we were able to establish that in some cases 90 per cent of our coral is either infected or dead,” stated Nature Foundation Project Officer Melanie Meijer zu Schlochtern.
The disease first appeared in Florida off the Miami-Dade County area in September 2014. The outbreak area has since progressed 175 kilometres to the Northern limit of the Florida reef tract and Southwest to Looe Key in the Lower Keys.
Numerous coral species (except acroporid coral) have been afflicted, disease prevalence has reached 80 per cent of all colonies present at a site, and a number of coral diseases have been observed. Meanwhile, sick and dying corals are found on Jamaican and U.S. Virgin Islands reefs with similar signs of disease and overlap with the reports from Florida.
Also in Mexico a severe outbreak of coral disease affecting similar species and exhibiting similar patterns as those in Florida has been recorded. St. Maarten can unfortunately now be added to the list of areas affected by tissue loss disease.
Nature Foundation again detected poor water quality in areas of Simpson Bay and Simpson Bay Lagoon in addition to a harmful algal bloom the foundation is also monitoring. Local reefs have already been hit hard due to Hurricane Irma and human activities such as pollution, nutrient run-off, overfishing and climate change.
“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,” said Nature Foundation Director Tadzio Bervoets.
Coral reefs provide more than US $50 million in goods and services to St. Maarten’s economy annually, yet have been facing significant challenges despite protective legislation.
“As always, we are working very hard in trying to manage this disease and the additional challenges through our management actions such trying to create extra reef habitat as part of the One Million Coral Initiative and adding epoxy mixed with antibiotics to affected coral. However, we urgently need the support of decision-makers and the wider community to make sure that we can continue our work of facing the challenges to the marine ecosystem head-on,” said Bervoets.
“A sound wastewater infrastructure, holding those that dump wastewater in the ocean and wetlands accountable, increased monitoring, and a ban on single-use plastics and non-coral-friendly sunscreen would go a long way.”