St. Maarten’s Coral Reefs Are Dying Due to Disease, Poor Wastewater Infrastructure

After the Nature Foundation St Maarten recently established the presence of ‘Tissue Loss Disease’ on several local coral reefs, the Foundation was able to establish through further investigation that in many locations some 90% of coral is either infected or dead. 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. Unfortunately the spread and lethality of the disease is being facilitated by poor water quality at several locations surrounding the island.

“In June 2018 we sent out a warning to our local dive operators about the coral disease which started in Florida and impacted Jamaican reefs by that time, unfortunately since October we started to notice the disease starting to affect our local coral here. After follow up surveys we were able to establish that in some cases 90% of our coral is either infected or dead” stated Melanie Meijer zu Schlochtern, Project Officer at the Nature Foundation.

The disease 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 and USVI 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.

Additionally, the Nature Foundation again detected poor water quality in areas of Simpson Bay and the Simpson Bay Lagoon in addition to a Harmful Algal Bloom that the Foundation is also currently monitoring; “Local reefs have already been hit hard due to Hurricane Irma and human activities such as pollution, nutrient run off, overfishing and climate change. Therefore the detected disease together with increased incidents of sewage and other pollutants being entered into the environment is an existential threat to our coral reefs. We have also seen Nutrient Indicator Algae appear in areas where it was largely absent, including in our coral nursery. We are now very concerned about our coral’s capacity to recover,” commented Nature Foundation Director Tadzio Bervoets.

Coral reefs provide more than fifty million dollars in goods and services to our economy annually, yet have been facing significant challenges despite protective legislation. “As always we are working very hard in trying to manage this disease and the additional challenges through our management actions such trying to create extra reef habitat as part of the One Million Coral Initiative and adding epoxy mixed with antibiotics to affected coral. However, we urgently need the support of decision makers and the wider community to make sure that we can continue our work of facing the challenges to the marine ecosystem head on. A sound wastewater infrastructure, holding those that dump wastewater in the ocean and wetlands accountable, increased monitoring, and a ban on single-use plastics and non-coral friendly sunscreen would go a long way,” concluded Bervoets.