Disease strikes corals in Upper Keys

BY TIMOTHY O'HARA Citizen Staff
tohara@keysnews.com

Despite mild coral bleaching this summer, there has been widespread coral disease from the Upper Keys to Miami. 

Florida Reef Resilience Program reported a series of different strains of diseases including white plague, white band and a disease some coral biologists are calling white “blotch,” according to Cory Walter, a coral biologist with Mote Marine Laboratory on Summerland Key.

While bleaching generally is not fatal, disease can be. The uptick in disease comes after severe bleaching in 2014 and 2015. 

The prevalence of diseased corals among reefs in Florida this year was greater than what was documented in both 2


014 and 2015, according to the Florida Reef Resilience Program. 

The highest concentration of severely diseased sites this year in the state were located in the Upper Keys, where severe bleaching and paling had also occurred. Unusually high occurrences of coral disease were first reported in 2014, and have continued through 2015 and 2016, according to the Florida Reef Resilience Program.

The disease does not seem to be severely impacting corals in the Lower Keys at this time, Walter said.

“Since waters did not reach the extreme temperatures seen in previous years, mass bleaching was less prevalent this year, but with multiple diseases impacting so many species of coral, the reefs are still imperiled,” said Jennifer Stein, of The Nature Conservancy. “FRRP partners remain on watch and continue to move forward in disease research and response recommendations.”

The ongoing disease outbreak has been a continuing concern among reef managers and local scientists. Coral disease outbreaks are not unprecedented off Florida, but the current outbreak is particularly troubling in that it has persisted and continued to spread since 2014, including multiple diseases impacting at least 18 species of coral, according to the Florida Reef Resilience Program.

Reef managers and local scientists have been meeting regularly to keep updated on the current status of coral disease observations and coordinate response activities. Current response efforts include a combination of in-water surveys, coral tissue sample collection, and laboratory analysis to better understand the extent, severity and potential causes of the disease outbreak so that additional impacts can be mitigated.

The Florida Reef Resilience Program plans to continue to collect coral bleaching and coral disease data during the annual Disturbance Response Monitoring that takes place through the summer months. The next survey period will be in August and last six to eight weeks.

The Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary has not closed any areas but continues to monitor the situation and asks divers to report disease to Cory Water at Mote. She can be reached at 305-395-8730.

The outbreak in disease comes as The Nature Conservancy, Mote, the Coral Restoration Foundation and other conservation groups are hard at work rearing and transplanting coral in the Keys.

The living coral reef in the Florida Keys not only provides habitat for marine life and helps protect the land and homes in the Keys from tropical storms, but is the backbone of the Keys’ economy.

More than 33,000 jobs in the Florida Keys are supported by ocean recreation and tourism, accounting for 58 percent of the local economy and $2.3 billion in annual sales, according to the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary. From 2007 to 2008, recreational fishermen spent $103 million on fishing in the Keys. In that same period, $51 million was spent on diving and snorkeling