Coral killer disease found in Cayman

DoE ‘very concerned’

Cayman’s reefs are under attack from the mysterious, but deadly Stony Coral Tissue Loss Disease that has ravaged Florida’s coral reefs.

Staff at the Department of Environment are racing to try to save local corals from the devastation witnessed there.

The Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission reported that the Upper Keys has lost more than 40% of its coral cover due to disease.

Last week, a diver in Cayman came across coral that had been impacted by the disease at Penny’s Arch, along the north coast.

Deputy Director at the Department of Environment Tim Austin said that, while only one local area of infection has been found so far, the DoE team is “very, very concerned”.

“If it does become a full-blown island-wide, or all three island-wide, infection, it’s going to take a lot of DoE’s resources,” Austin said.

Department of Environment Deputy Director Tim Austin says teams are monitoring the spread of Stony Coral Tissue Loss Disease. – Photo: Reshma Ragoonath

He said about one mile of infected coral has been discovered.

The disease, he said, has spread in both directions from the epicentre of infection and the DoE research team is monitoring it.

“We put out stakes and nails into the coral so we can determine how fast it’s spreading, and it will help us determine how quick of a response is needed. Obviously, if it’s moved hundreds of metres or to lots more corals, we’ll know we’ve got to get going faster than we currently are. But if things are relatively stable, then we’ve got some time to really think up a more solid response,” Austin said.

The disease, which was first discovered in Florida in 2014, has been reported in at least 12 Caribbean jurisdictions, including Jamaica, St. Maarten, United States Virgin Islands, Dominican Republic, and Turks and Caicos Islands, as well as in Quintana Roo in Mexico, according to the Atlantic and Gulf Rapid Reef Assessment.

What this means for Cayman’s reefs

The cause of Stony Coral Tissue Loss Disease is unknown. What is known, however, is that it affects at least 20 types of stony corals, including primary reef building species such as pillar coral, elliptical star coral, maze coral, brain coral and the smooth flower coral.

Austin said once a coral is infected, it begins to lose live tissue, and it is likely that the colony will die within months.

“It certainly looks as though all corals can be infected by it, but there are certain species that are much more susceptible to it. In particular, the pillar coral we’re seeing, which is quite a rare coral anyway. We’ve seen that on the west side. The pillar corals are very, very susceptible to it. Florida lost, I think 95%, of its pillar coral as a result of this disease,” he said.

For the moment, the infection, he said, seems contained in one area in Cayman.

“Though it’s a fairly large area, the disease does look like it’s confi ned. We found the edges of it, in terms of the spread,” he said, adding that the DoE knows that when a reef is infected, the disease jumps coral to coral. He explained that hard corals created the structure of reefs and are critical species.

“They are the ones that have been building the reef structure, the dimension. All of that has been built by the living coral animal, so to lose those would be really, really catastrophic. We would lose the three-dimensional structure. We would lose the productivity on the reef and pretty much everything else. Fish, all other marine life, is very, very closely connected to that process,” he said.

As the disease kills the coral, it leaves the skeleton behind and turns the coral white. This, Austin said, could impact Cayman’s main diving draw.

“A reef without coral would not be the best dive in the world. But then, you know, there are dives where coral isn’t the main feature, but certainly for the majority of the dives in Cayman, the coral reef is the attraction,” he said.

It is unclear how the disease arrived in Cayman as researchers do not know how the disease is spread. However, Austin said, the whole Caribbean is connected by water currents, which is the most likely method of spreading.

“But there are people suggesting it could be ballast water (discharged from ships). It could be in people’s dive equipment. There’s a host of factors that could, in fact, carry this. But, at the moment, it’s probably most likely just brought on ocean currents,” he said.

What’s next?

Austin said the DoE’s researchers have been impeded by the coronavirus restrictions and now they are tasked with this new challenge of dealing with Stony Coral Tissue Loss Disease.

However, he said, international scientists are monitoring the disease outbreak in the region and identifying the pathogens or bacteria.

“There are some interventions, but they’re all extremely labour intensive. There are people around the Caribbean that are sort of culling disease by removing the diseased coral to prevent the spread. People are working with antibiotics and applying antibiotics underwater to coral. They’ve had some success with it,” he said.

Cayman is not at that stage, but Austin said the DoE is looking at all options and is hoping divers exercise caution to help stop the spread.

| The DoE is developing a rapid response strategy and is urging divers to report any sightings of diseased coral directly to [email protected]

40% – The amount of coral lost in the Upper Keys in Florida due to Stony Coral Tissue Loss Disease

How you can help

The DoE is suggesting divers and snorkelers can do the following to reduce their likelihood of transferring Stony Coral Tissue Loss Disease and help to slow its spread:

• Practise proper buoyancy when diving

• Avoid touching marine organisms

• Sanitise equipment between dives and after each dive excursion (especially between infected and uninfected locations)

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