Nature Foundation Detects Worrisome Coral Disease Epidemic on St Maarten Coral Reefs

The Nature Foundation St Maarten has recently established the presence of ‘Tissue Loss Disease’ on several local coral reefs. 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.
“In June 2018 we send out a warning to our local dive operators about the coral disease which started in Florida and impacted Jamaican reefs by that time, unfortunately about two months ago we started to notice the disease starting to affect our local coral here. We can now confirm that St Maarten corals are affected by the tissue loss disease, with the assistance of David Vaughan, coral and coral reef restoration expert and leading scientist on the ‘Plant a million Coral initiative’, we were able to confirm the disease on our local reefs. The disease has been detected on dive sites in the ‘Man of War Shoal Marine Protected Area’ as well as on other reefs around the island” stated Melanie Meijer zu Schlochtern Project Officer at the Nature Foundation.

Sick corals first appeared in Florida off the Miami-Dade County area in September 2014. The outbreak area has since progressed 175 km 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% 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 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 patters as those in Florida has been recorded. Sint Maarten can unfortunately now be added to the list of affect areas for tissue loss disease.

“The disease appears to be water borne and may potentially be spread by divers’ gear according the Florida Disease Advisory Committee. They advise divers in the Caribbean and Florida to soak their gear in a 5% chlorine bleach solution for 30 minutes, and rinse well after. We also advise all divers to be aware of their fins and to not touch any diseased or healthy coral, they may transmit the disease to other corals! Let’s not have scuba divers become paths of a coral disease” continued Melanie Meijer zu Schlochtern.
Local reefs have been hit hard due to Hurricane Irma and human activities, such as pollution, nutrient run off, overfishing and climate change. Therefore the detected disease is an additional large threat to our coral reefs and the question is, if our reefs will ever recover from all these events, therefore the Nature Foundation requests maximum protection of our coral reefs in order to maintain what is left.

Director at the Nature Foundation Tadzio Bervoets mentioned that this again is a significant challenge faced by local reefs; “Unfortunately this is another challenge that we have to deal with in managing what is one of our most important natural resources. Coral reefs provide more than fifty million dollars in goods and services to our economy abbualy, yet we have been facing significant challenges with regards to our coral, ranging from coral bleaching to 80% of our coral being lost due to Hurricanes Irma and Maria and now this disease. We are working hard in trying to manage this disease and trying to create extra reef habitat as part of the One Million Coral Initiative but we need the support of decision makers and the wider community in ensuring that we can continue our work to ensure that we have a healthy coral ecosystem. A ban on plastics and non-coral friendly sunscreen would go a long way,” concluded Bervoets.

Recently the Nature Foundation also located large amounts of single-use plastics on local reefs, research has found a link between plastic and disease on coral reefs. The likelihood of disease increases from 4 percent to 89 percent when corals are in contact with plastic and it suggests that ocean waters with lots of plastic waste might also carry other pollutants that could also be contributing to higher rates of coral disease, a ban on single-use plastics is needed in order to protect this invaluable natural resource.