DoE seeking extra funding to combat deadly coral disease

Examples of stony coral tissue loss disease lesions on elliptical star coral. - Photo: Karen Neely via AGGRA

The Department of Environment is seeking additional funding from government to help combat a deadly pathogen that is killing off corals on Grand Cayman’s reefs.

The DoE last year closed off dive sites along the North Wall to try to slow the march of the encroaching stony coral tissue loss disease (SCTLD), but it continues to spread closer to Seven Mile Beach.

DoE Director Gina Ebanks-Petrie, speaking at a briefing to water-sports operators on Friday, said her department has asked government for permission to funnel about $100,000 from other environmental projects, that had already been budgeted, to tackle the problem.

She said she hoped those funds would soon be released.

She said most of the money come from the Environmental Protection Fund, but as that consists of funds from departure taxes at the airport and port, with Cayman’s borders closed and no tourists on the islands, it is becoming depleted.

As some other budgeted projects had been set aside during the COVID-19 crisis, the DoE is asking that funds that would have been spent on them should now go towards efforts to stop the spread of SCTLD on local reefs, Ebanks-Petrie said.

The red line in this map indicates where stony coral tissue loss disease has been found at sites along the North Wall, as of last week. – Image: DoE

Scientists have identified at least 25 coral species that are susceptible to the disease, which was first identified in Florida in 2014. The disease, which can lead to the death of a coral head within weeks, also has a very high rate of transmission.

Exactly what causes the disease and how it is spread remains a mystery. It is believed to be caused by a bacterium, but precisely what type has not been determined.

Tammi Warrender, who is leading the DoE’s campaign to tackle the spread of the disease, outlined at Friday’s meeting some of the ways it may be transmitted – via fish feeding, through water currents, through divers’ gear or through bilge water from boats.

The disease is spreading along Cayman’s northern reef at a mile a month, Warrender said.

The DoE set up a ‘fire break’ on the North Wall late last year by removing corals that were most susceptible to stony coral tissue loss disease along a 300 metre area, and placing them elsewhere. While that appeared to slow down the spread for a while, it has now breached the fire break and has been found beyond it.

Currently, the only weapon in the DoE’s arsenal to fight the disease is an antibiotic that has proved to be 100% successful in stopping the spread of lesions on the affected corals. The department’s staff and a team of trained volunteers have been administering the amoxicillin antibiotic paste, but it is a complex and specialised task, Warrender said.

Troy Leacock, who runs Crazy Crab boat charters and who is among those spearheading efforts to continue feeding stingrays at the Sandbar while the borders remain closed to tourists, said at the meeting that he feared the stony coral tissue loss disease was a bigger threat to the future of water-sports operators in Cayman than COVID-19.

Noting that operators currently had boats and staff available to help in the coral disease-fighting efforts while the borders were shut and business was slow, he said, “Everything I have heard today makes me wonder if we have an unmanageable threat to our future here.”

Other operators also told the DoE at Friday’s meeting that they had staff, equipment and boats that could help with the efforts to combat the spread of the disease, and asked how they could assist.

Warrender invited them to outline what manpower and boats they could make available and for how many hours a week, so that a plan could be drawn up for the DoE and the private operators to work together on the project.

It was suggested at the meeting that operators could submit tender bids on carrying out the work.

What divers can do to help now

Warrender said divers and operators can help to stop or slow the spread of the disease by disinfecting equipment and boat bilge water with a 1% bleach solution.

She pointed out that the protocols for disinfecting dive gear is similar to those drawn up for suppressing COVID-19 – which she added were likely to be reintroduced once Cayman’s borders reopen and visiting divers return.

The DoE has issued this flier with tips on how to help. CLICK TO ENLARGE

So far, there has been no reports of stony coral tissue loss disease on the Sister Islands, and Warrender urged any divers travelling from Grand Cayman to Little Cayman or Cayman Brac to ensure their dive gear is properly decontaminated by soaking it in a 1% bleach solution and fully drying it in the sun before going there.

The DoE team is also anxious to find out if the disease is present on reef sites beyond the North Wall, and is appealing to divers and snorkellers to be on the lookout for the telltale signs of dead, whitened coral and lesions.

Warrender urged people to take underwater photos of suspected diseased sites and to upload them to the Epicollect 5 app or the Cayman Islands Coral Watch Facebook page, so that she and other experts can determine if what they’re looking at is SCTLD or something else, such as black band disease or coral bleaching which is also commonly seen in Cayman.

“If you see something, say something,” she said, “especially in the west, south or east of the island.”

Since she put out a call for volunteers last week, she estimates that about 50 divers have reached out to offer their time and efforts, and she said the DoE would be getting back to those individuals shortly.

Currently, a team of five DoE staff and 30 volunteers have been trained to identify the types of stony coral, such as brain, maze or star corals, which are susceptible to the disease, as well as signs of SCTLD itself.

Ebanks-Petrie said the DoE was working with international bodies, such as the Atlantic and Gulf Rapid Reef Assistance, the United States Geological Survey and the UK’s Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, to come up with a global response to tackling the disease.

The DoE said it would be providing monthly updates on the progress of the disease on local reefs, as well as efforts to combat it. Companies that want a briefing on the subject were also invited to contact the department.

Who to contact

Email [email protected] to volunteer to help with the project or to seek further information about SCTLD.

Send photos of suspected infected coral to the Cayman Islands Coral Watch Facebook page or (preferably) download the Epicollect5 app and submit photos and reports of coral lesions there.

Watch the briefing in full here.

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