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All is Not Lost . . . Yet

A chance to save the coral reefs of the Turks & Caicos Islands.

By the Staff of the Turks & Caicos Reef Fund (TCRF)
and the School for Field Studies Center for Marine Resource Studies (SFS CMRS)

In the Summer 2019 issue of Times of the Islands, professors from the South Caicos School for Field Studies Center for Marine Resource Studies (SFS CMFS) talked about a new and emerging threat to the coral reefs of the Turks & Caicos Islands. They first noticed it in South Caicos in early 2019. Since then, Stony Coral Tissue Loss Disease (SCTLD) has made its way to the popular reefs of West Caicos and Providenciales at a fast-enough rate that it has caused alarm among maritime authorities and recreational divers alike.

This disease was first discovered off the coast of Florida in 2014. Over the past five years it has spread rapidly up and down the Atlantic coast of Florida and well into the Florida Keys. It is a devastating disease affecting 20 species of very slow-growing corals that are the foundation of many coral reef systems. In some coral species monitored in Florida, the disease reportedly had an 80% mortality rate.

This image of one of TCI’s healthy stands of pillar coral shows how much we have to lose if SCTLD is not quickly controlled or eradicated.

The cause of this disease is unknown, but is suspected to be bacterial. The troublesome thing about bacterial diseases is that they can be easily transferred from one area to another via currents, marine life and even by divers picking up the disease’s causative agent on their dive gear and spreading it by using that same gear on other sites where the disease has possibly not yet been observed.

In late May 2019, Turks & Caicos Reef Fund volunteer divers observed its presence on the southern-most reefs of West Caicos. Within less than six weeks it had spread northward and is now observed at sites all along the West Caicos Reef. It has also spread to the reefs of the North West Point area of Providenciales and has now been confirmed as present on dive sites on the north shore of Providenciales—Grace Bay.

The rapidity of its spread and the high mortality rate has put the coral reefs of the Turks & Caicos Islands at a high risk of severe damage that could take hundreds of years, if ever, to repair. This is undeniable when one looks at what has happened in Florida due to this coral crisis.

However, and this is the important part, all is not lost. At least not yet. The TCI is not Florida. Our waters are cleaner, our corals are more varied, more prevalent, and the general health of our reef tract pre-disease is significantly better than Florida’s. Yes, this is an issue that needs to be addressed quickly, but our water quality and past resilience give hope to the TCI’s reef as long as we can get ahead of the disease. Stony Coral Tissue Loss Disease was only named in the last couple of years; it took almost three years of Florida’s reef being affected before any type of intervention or rescue started. They waited too long. Their unfortunate loss however, has given us and other Caribbean countries a head-start on saving our own reefs.

On August 1–2, 2019, a learning exchange was hosted by MPA Connect (an initiative of the Gulf and Caribbean Fisheries Institute in partnership with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Coral Reef Conservation Program). Representatives from 18 countries including TCI gathered together in Key West to discuss the disease, what we know about it and what treatments have been tried and tested. Having this information shared by Florida’s scientists has given us a real advantage at possible disease control.

This disturbing image shows the rapidity with which Stony Coral Tissue Loss disease destroys coral.

Concurrently, the rapidity with which we are reacting here in the TCI and how early we’ve started monitoring and collecting data could be of potential benefit to the overall understanding of SCTLD and how it spreads through different colonies. We have species here that became rare or unseen in Florida long before the arrival of SCTLD. Researchers there are now looking to us to help determine when in the disease outbreak timeline certain corals are affected. Increased awareness and international communication and cooperation between countries in the region is perhaps the only positive this disease has brought, but it is one nonetheless.

While the situation is urgent, it is not too late to save this incredibly important ecosystem. Corals are resilient if given the chance and the enabling conditions for their growth and survival. The key is reducing local stressors to support reproduction, growth, and survival.

Researchers in Florida have experimented with several different interventions in an effort to stop the spread of SCTLD on their reefs. Over the past couple of years, they’ve collected results and it seems that the best treatment practices for dealing with SCTLD is an amoxicillin-based treatment through strategic, small-scale application. Research shows that this treatment approach can be 80% effective in stopping the progression of the disease across a coral colony.

Unfortunately, the treatment must be administered on a coral-head-by-coral-head basis—it is not one that can be easily administered to a section of coral reef. The initial treatment approach was to select an infected coral head and treat it individually by cutting a “firebreak” using either a hammer and chisel or an underwater angle grinder (yes, they do make those) along the margin between diseased and healthy tissue. The amoxicillin, which has been premixed in very small doses into a delivery base such as shea butter and loaded into a catheter-tipped syringe, is then applied into the groove of the firebreak. If necessary, a small amount of modeling clay can be used to keep the treatment base in place.More recently, the Florida researchers have found that cutting the firebreak may not be necessary and simply applying the antibiotic treatment to the disease margin may be adequate. Representatives from the DECR and TCRF were shown how and given the opportunity to apply the treatment themselves during the August workshop.

Divers apply the amoxicillin-based treatment to a SCTLD-infected coral head.

DECR, TCRF and SFS CMRS have started training team leaders and volunteer divers in this treatment process. We expect to have divers in the water monitoring and treating several days each week until SCTLD is controlled, or better yet, eliminated. But we have to act now. As more research is completed in Florida and elsewhere, any improvements in the treatment approach will be incorporated in the best practices used on TCI reefs.

Because the treatment approach is on a coral-head-by-coral-head basis and each treatment is time consuming, it will be an expensive and labor-intensive fight. If we want to save the reefs of the Turks & Caicos Islands, we have little choice but to start implementing this treatment approach on our reefs immediately. TCRF has reached out to local businesses and individuals in an effort to raise money to supplement the TCI Government’s investment in this effort and to have divers on the reefs monitoring the spread of the disease and treating affected coral heads, but more funding is needed if we are to be successful in saving the TCI reefs. Funding is needed to pay for a project manager to oversee the work, boat use and fuel, supplies (amoxicillin, shea butter, syringes, gloves, etc).

If you want to help, please go to to contribute to the cause!

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Aysha Stephen is Grand Turk’s newest artistic sensation, renowned for her iconic “Cool Donkeys” paintings. Her creations are quite the hit with visitors to TDB Fine Arts Gallery. It recently opened within the Turks & Caicos National Museum on Grand Turk and is dedicated to showcasing art “Made in TCI.

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