Coral Reefs Threatened by Mysterious Disease Compared to Ebola

From Martin County out past Key West, a mysterious disease is attacking the stony coral reefs of Florida, liquifying them from the inside out and leaving nothing visible but patches of skeleton.

Known as Stony Coral Tissue Loss Disease (SCTLD), National Marine Sanctuaries says that since 2014, SCTLD has infected 150 square miles of stony coral, including practically half of the stony coral species that help comprise the Florida Reef Tract. That includes five species that are on the Endangered Species list.

The cause of the disease is unknown, although a bacterial pathogen of some kind is suspected. SCTLD carries with it a mortality rate of 66 to 100 percent. Once the disease sets in, it will likely destroy the colony within weeks to a month.

According to the National Ocean Service, stony corals lay the foundations for and build up reef structures. The coral polyps, tiny animals related to anemones, exude a skeleton of calcium carbonate. As old colonies die off and new ones are formed on top of them, the coral reef grows.

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Some coral reefs, such as these in Key West, are in danger of being wiped out by a mysterious disease. Getty

SCTLD is also ravaging the reefs in the Caribbean. Marilyn Brandt of the University of the Virgin Islands told Reuters, "I have never seen anything that affects so many species, so quickly and so viciously—and it just continues."

Breaking the general rule about never touching a coral reef, Brandt's team has started removing diseased bits with a hammer and chisel. Like deadheading a flowering plant, the hope is that when the diseased section of the coral reef is removed, the rest of the reef will thrive.

While there is currently no cure for SCTLD, scientists are trying to figure out how to treat it.

Dr. Andy Bruckner, research coordinator for the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary, says, "NOAA scientists are working with partners to identify a pathogen that causes the tissue loss, better characterize transmission of the disease, and understand the patterns of spread throughout the reef and overall impacts of the disease."

Tissue samples are being taken to help identify potential pathogens. Researchers are also keeping track of conditions in the ecosystem, such as water temperature, water quality and sedimentation.

Scientists are also working to create gene banks for specific species of coral, such as pillar coral. When a cure for the disease is found, the corals could be placed along the reef.

Keeping the coral reef in place is financially beneficial to Florida. In the Keys, 58 percent of all the jobs are related to marine activities. These jobs lead to $3.38 billion in income and sales annually.

Meanwhile, SCTLD maintains its inexorable spread. Marilyn Brandt says, "This thing is more like Ebola. It's a killer, and we don't know how to stop it."