Deadly coral disease spreads east

This map shows the progression the stony coral tissue loss disease, which has now been found at the Macabuca dive site. - Image: DoE

The Department of Environment has confirmed that stony coral tissue loss disease has spread eight miles in either direction of its original location after it was first spotted in Cayman’s waters 10 months ago.

Since the disease was found at the Penny’s Arch site near Rum Point last summer, the DoE has concentrated its research efforts and preventative measures along the northwestern coast. It hopes to slow the disease as it threatens to enter reefs along Seven Mile Beach on the west side of the island, where many of the most popular dive sites are located.
DoE research officer Cody Panton, speaking on Rooster 101’s ‘Cayman Crosstalk’ on 30 March, said the disease has also spread eastward at a similar rate.

This coral seen at Penny’s Arch in the Rum Point Channel is infected with Stony Coral Tissue Loss Disease. – Photo: DoE

“We did a [boat] tow last week… it spread eight miles away from what I would say was ground zero, which was Penny’s Arch,” Panton said.

The deadly disease was first spotted in Cayman’s waters in June 2020. In October, the DoE advised the closure of 43 dive sites along the North Wall and instituted a coral ‘fire break’ to help reduce the spread of it.

However, last month the DoE confirmed the stony coral disease had jumped the fire break and was spreading along the northwestern section of Grand Cayman. Infected corals have been spotted at dive sites near Macabuca, located on North West Point Road, in West Bay. Now, researchers fear its current path will take it to Seven Mile Beach coral reefs.
Panton said it was also spreading along North Side’s coastline.

SCTLD was first observed off the Florida Keys in 2014; since then, it has spread throughout Caribbean and Central American reefs. The exact mode of transfer remains unknown, but scientists have determined more than 25 coral species are vulnerable to the highly transmittable disease.

“We don’t know if it will get… to the Sister Islands, we don’t know if it is already there,” said Marilyn Conolly, DoE media relations officer, who likened her colleagues’ efforts to curb the disease to being at war.

“But should that happen, we want to make sure that residents are aware of what it looks like and what to do and understand the disinfecting protocols.”

The DoE recommends that people soak their dive gear in disinfecting solution for up to 10 minutes. The gear should be rinsed in fresh water and air-dried before re-use. All water used for disinfecting and rinsing dive gear should be properly disposed of into a sink, tub or shower. Disinfection sites have been set up at dive operations across Grand Cayman. For boat owners, the DoE recommends the bilge water be disinfected with bleach, and cleared before travelling to the Sister Islands to prevent the disease spreading from Grand Cayman.

People who encounter the disease are encouraged to report it to the DoE, through the Epicollect app, which can be downloaded online.

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