[Coral-List] FW: New disease threatens Keys reef

Precht, Bill Bprecht at pbsj.com
Mon Mar 22 14:35:50 EST 2004


Subject: FYI: New disease threatens Keys reef


New disease threatens Keys reef

Scrap was pulled from the Gulf months ago

By KEVIN LOLLAR, klollar at news-press.com
Published by news-press.com on March 19, 2004

Already under assault from a variety of diseases, algal blooms and
deadly sponges, the Keys reef tract is facing yet another threat.

Scientists recently have discovered a disease that quickly kills
staghorn coral, a species whose populations are in drastic decline.

"This is definitely just one more wake-up call that our reefs are not
doing well in some areas and our oceans are sick," said Billy Causey,
superintendent of the Florida Keys National Marine
 Sanctuary. "What this tells me is that our reefs are extremely
vulnerable, and what affects them is really complex. There's no one

NOAA-Fisheries ecologist Margaret Miller and University of Miami
postdoctoral associate Dana Williams discovered the disease in late
April 2003 at White Banks North and White Banks South patch reefs off
Key Largo.

"We were rather heartbroken," Miller said. "We were doing basic
monitoring of juvenile colonies of staghorn, and they were growing
really well, but then they started dying like flies.

"We sort of said, 'Hmm, this looks bad.' Over the next couple of weeks,
mortality progressed very rapidly. We talked to the sanctuary and they
said, 'Hey, something's going on.' "

Sanctuary officials closed the reefs to all human activity in July for
two months.

Researchers at Hollings Marine Laboratory in Charleston, S.C., are
studying infected staghorn tissue but have not determined what causes
the disease. Neither have researchers named it.

Staghorn coral is one of the hardest-hit species in the Keys and
throughout the Caribbean basin. Populations have declined by up to 95
percent in some locations. Earlier this month, the Center for Biological
Diversity petitioned the federal government to put staghorn and its
close relatives, fused staghorn and elkhorn, on the Endangered Species

The disease also might have infected elkhorn and fused staghorn corals.

"It's difficult to tell because we don't know exactly what we're looking
at," Williams said. "We've seen disease signs that look remarkably
similar in terms of how it kills.

"It's definitely everywhere and probably has been, but at a low level.
Then sometimes it seems to spread more rapidly."

Historically, staghorn coral's greatest enemy has been white band
disease, but the newly discovered disease kills more quickly.

"Coral fragments 6 to 8 inches long die within four or five days,"
Miller said. "Semi-large colonies, half a meter to three-quarters of a
meter, are two-thirds dead in two weeks. It's depressing to watch.

"By comparison, white band disease spreads only a few millimeters a

Experiments at White Banks show that a diseased section of coral can
infect a healthy section by direct contact.

Miller and Williams also found that the small coral snail, a natural
coral predator, can spread the disease, but the disease cannot be spread
by humans.

At this point, scientists don't know what the long-term effects of the
disease will be.

"That's the $64,000 question," Miller said. "But it's a good reminder
that these outbreaks can pop up without notice, and we don't understand
how, when or where. These outbreaks are unpredictable and can have a
rapid, drastic impact at individual sites."

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