Deadly coral disease rounds North West Point

This map shows the progression of stony coral tissue loss disease along the north coast of Grand Cayman. Most recently, it has spread around North West Point in West Bay. - Image: DoE

Stony coral tissue loss disease has rounded North West Point and appears to be edging along the west coast of Grand Cayman towards Seven Mile Beach.

In its latest update, the Department of Environment reported on Monday morning that diseased corals had been seen at two sites south of the Macabuca dive site, where it had been found in mid-March.

According to a DoE map showing the locations where the coral disease has been seen, it has now been found at the Portabello and Lighthouse Point sites.

Tim Austin, deputy director of the DoE, told the Cayman Compass that the disease has now spread into an area designated as a marine reserve area.

“We’re going at full steam now to try to come up with ways to slow its progress,” he added, but said it seemed “inevitable” that it would eventually spread across the island.

- Advertisement -

The disease was first found at the Penny’s Arch site near Rum Point last summer. Dive sites along the North Wall were closed for several months and the DoE tried to create a ‘firebreak’ at the Ghost Mountain site, but in February the disease spread beyond that point.

A maze coral infected with stony coral tissue loss disease. – Photo: DoE

Austin said the DoE is still closely monitoring the Penny’s Arch site, where the disease is continuing to affect new corals. “It hasn’t reached its full endemic stage there; there are still corals getting infected,” he said.

Earlier this month, the DoE invited qualified divers to apply for paid positions to help fight stony coral tissue loss disease. Divers applied for six-month contracts in which they would commit to dedicating at least three days a week to the response effort. The DoE is already working with a team of volunteers to help tackle the disease.

Austin said about 40 people, including several of the volunteers, had applied for the positions, and the DoE was currently working its way through the applications. Ultimately, there will be about six paid positions available, he said.

The disease is believed to be caused by a bacterium and, so far, the only response that has been successful in stopping its spread is the administration of an amoxicillin antibiotic paste.

Stony coral tissue loss disease first appears as white patches or lesions on the corals, indicating the sections that have died. The antibiotic paste is applied around the edges of the lesion, and has been found to be 100% effective in stopping the pathogen from spreading to unaffected parts of the coral.

Austin said volunteers and staff, as well as putting the antibiotic paste on the affected corals, are monitoring for reinfection rates, to determine if corals that have already received the antibiotic are getting infected again.

The disease was first reported in Florida in September 2014, and has since spread to several locations across the Caribbean.

No sign of the disease has yet been reported on the Sister Islands. Divers or boats travelling from Grand Cayman to Cayman Brac or Little Cayman are advised to thoroughly disinfect their equipment, in an effort to prevent the disease from spreading. The DoE is also encouraging divers to decontaminate their gear between visiting different dive sites on Grand Cayman.

More than 20 of the most common hard corals found in Cayman are susceptible to the fast-acting disease. These include various brain corals, as well as pillar, star and maze corals. It does not appear to infect branching corals, like elkhorn or staghorn.

The disease is also continuing to spread east, though not as quickly as along the west side, Austin said, probably because of the direction of currents.

The DoE is working with local water-sports operators to find boat captains to help transport volunteers and staff to diverse sites to treat and monitor the corals, Austin said.

Cayman also is collaborating with international bodies, such as 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.

Who to contact

Email [email protected] to volunteer to help with the project or to seek further information about stony coral tissue loss disease.

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.

- Advertisement -

Support local journalism. Subscribe to the all-access pass for the Cayman Compass.

Subscribe now