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The Battle Begins

Treatment program to fight Stony Coral Tissue Loss Disease underway.

By the Staff of the Turks & Caicos Reef Fund (TCRF)

Stony Coral Tissue Loss Disease (SCTLD) is a new coral disease that 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 devasting 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.

The cause of this disease 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. 

A healthy, thriving star coral is a beautiful sight to behold.

SCTLD first appeared in TCI waters in January 2019 on the reefs of South Caicos. Then in May 2019 it was found on the southern reefs off the coast of West Caicos and within six weeks it had spread to the reefs covering the entire length of West Caicos. The disease has moved eastward and has been observed on the Northwest Point reefs and even in Grace Bay. In November 2019, SCTLD was confirmed on the reefs off the coast of Grand Turk. 

The “sort of” good news is that the extremely high water temperatures observed on TCI’s reefs this past summer appears to have slowed the progression of the disease. This is only “sort of” good news as the high water temperatures caused a major bleaching event, putting a new stress on the same corals that are susceptible to SCTLD. Many corals will recover from bleaching and many appear to be doing so as cooler water temperatures have returned. But the cooling water is bringing SCTLD back to life. 

This star coral is showing symptoms of Stony Coral Tissue Loss Disease.

Since August 2019, Turks & Caicos Reef Fund (TCRF) staff and the Department of Environment & Coastal Resources (DECR) have been monitoring the spread and progression of the disease on West Caicos, Northwest Point, Grace Bay and all the way to Pine Cay. Although the disease outbreak on South Caicos and West Caicos has been severe, other reefs around Providenciales and Pine Cay appear to have only minor infections at the present time. So NOW is the time to act to do something about SCTLD and prevent severe damage to our valuable and important coral reefs.

In late January 2020, the TCI Government’s Department of Environment and Coastal Resources approved a treatment plan for SCTLD proposed by the Turks & Caicos Reef Fund. This treatment protocol is based on research conducted by scientists in Florida who have been dealing with the consequences of this disease since 2014. We happily will benefit from all this research and not have to reinvent the wheel.

Our proposed treatment protocol involves making a paste of a base (either shea butter or a special base created by a pharmaceutical supplier in Florida) incorporated with amoxicillin, a penicillin antibiotic. That antibiotic paste is then spread on a coral head around the margin of the infected area. If the base is shea butter, it is then covered with modeling clay to hold it in place. In Florida, this treatment has been shown to be between 67% and 80% effective in stopping the disease progression. The coral head will have a dead spot where the infection started, and that area will not likely grow back any coral polyps as algae quickly takes over, but the rest of the coral head can be saved in many cases.

TCRF and DECR are now training volunteers and team leaders on how to identify the susceptible coral species, how to identify SCTLD and differentiate it from other coral diseases, how to prepare the antibiotic treatment and how to administer the treatment. The first team of eight volunteers was trained on February 6, 2020. Treated coral heads will be tagged with a yellow or green numbered tag so that the effect of the treatment can be monitored. Each treated coral head will be monitored approximately monthly. In many cases one treatment does the trick, but in some cases, retreatment will be needed.

Volunteers are learning to apply an antibiotic paste to prevent the spread of disease.

“Because this is a treatment done on a coral head by coral head basis, it is very time consuming,” said Alizee Zimmermann, Project Manager for the TCRF’s treatment effort. “We are going to need more volunteers who are experienced divers, who have flexible schedules and who do not have a penicillin allergy to tackle this potentially devastating problem. We also need a lot of eyes on the reef, so we will be conducting special training sessions for volunteers who may not fit the requirements to be one of the treaters, but who can help us gather data on the extent and progression of the disease by doing what we call roving diver surveys.”

Roving diver surveys are a simple technique which involves swimming in a line at a fixed depth for a minimum of 10 minutes and counting all the corals in an area approximately six feet wide. The susceptible species are tallied as undiseased, potentially diseased, diseased or dead. A large number of volunteers are needed to conduct these surveys all around the TCI.  Any diver interested in becoming a roving diver surveyor should contact the TCRF at info@tcreef.org.  

SCTLD affects 20 species of corals that create much of the structure of our coral reefs. These include brain corals, pillar corals and boulder corals. It is not thought to affect sponges or soft corals such as sea whips and sea fans, but these species do little to provide coastal protection or habitat for fish and other animals that live on the reefs. When a stony coral dies from SCTLD, it begins to erode and the structure of the reef begins to decline.

Obviously, this treatment approach is very labor- intensive, time-consuming and costly, but it has to be done to save the TCI reefs. TCRF’s goal is to be out on the water at least two days a week treating and monitoring. This means we will need a fairly large group of volunteer divers who have flexible schedules and can go out to work with TCRF on this project. Any experienced diver (over 100 dives) who is not allergic to penicillin and who is willing to learn the challenging art of coral identification is encouraged to contact TCRF about becoming a volunteer for this effort by emailing donstark@tcreef.org or calling TCRF directly at 649 347 8455 or filling out the volunteer form on the TCRF website (www.tcreef.org).

TCRF has reached out to local businesses and individuals in an attempt to raise money to support this effort, 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 and supplies (amoxicillin, shea butter, syringes, gloves, etc.). If you want to help, please go to www.tcreef.org/donate or contact TCRF Chairman Don Stark directly at 649 347 8455 to contribute to the cause!

Special thanks to those businesses and individuals who have already generously donated to support this effort, including Dive Provo who has allowed our project manager for this effort to go out on their boats when space is available at no charge to do regular monitoring.



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