Scientists Battle Mysterious Pathogen Destroying Coral Reefs Off Florida Coast
By Robynne Boyd
Off the coast of Broward County in southeast Florida, a 330-year-old coral colony has withered in the water thanks to a mysterious pathogen. At the height of its health, this slow-growing variety of coral, known as mountainous star, looked like a car-size brown mushroom cap scored by ridges and valleys and colored with splashes of fluorescent green. Today the countless minuscule sea-anemone-like polyps that form the colony have turned white and died, laying bare the skeletal structure below.
A centuries-old mountainous star coral colonyFlower Garden Banks National Marine Sanctuary / NOAA / Schmahl
Corals all along Florida's southeastern shore are succumbing to the same disease. In fact, more than half of the state's Coral Reef Tract—an area 175 miles long and covering more than 100,000 acres—has been infected. It's a rapid change in circumstance that has experts concerned and scrambling for answers and solutions.
"This is unprecedented," said Karen Bohnsack, reef resilience coordinator for the Florida Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) Coral Reef Conservation Program. Never before has this number of coral species in an area of this size begun dying off this quickly, she said. "Unfortunately, as far as what it is that's causing it, the only answer I can give is that we don't know."
There are in fact many unknowns in this unfolding coral murder mystery. Scientists have coined the generic term "white syndrome" to describe the unidentified virus or bacteria because of the white bands or uneven white blotches that engulf the coral. The disease has touched at least 21 of the approximately 25 species of stony, or hard, corals that help make up the Florida reefs. The most common of these, including staghorn, acorn, mountain star, cavernous and knobby brain corals, have all been dealt a hefty blow.
"If corals contract this white syndrome, in most cases the coral colony will die, and that's what's most concerning," said Bohnsack. "We have seen an almost 100 percent mortality in this disease event."
The first signs of white syndrome appeared in 2015 off Key Biscayne, a barrier island south of Miami. It appeared in tandem with the longest, most widespread, and most damaging global bleaching event on record, which stretched from 2014 to 2017. Coral bleaching and white disease are two separate events. Bleaching occurs when coral polyps release their colorful, symbiotic algae due to the excessive stress of warming water. Coral disease can occur with or without high heat stress.
"The reefs suffered severe bleaching in those years, and each event caused major outbreaks of coral disease in 2015 and 2016," said Mark Eakin, coordinator of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Coral Reef Watch Program. "Unfortunately, the diseases are appearing much faster than scientists can identify them," Eakin added.
Coral bleaching in the MaldivesThe Ocean Agency / XL Catlin Seaview Survey, 2016
In the 1980s, coral diseases were restricted to a few warm-water areas such as the Caribbean. Now outbreaks occur almost every year and can be found in most of the world's coral reef habitats, whether in remote ocean landscapes or near dense human populations, such as off the Florida coast.
The same goes for heat stress. The warm water that causes bleaching is now both hotter and more common than before, said Eakin. Coral reefs now bleach about four times more often than they did in the early 1980s, according to a recent article in Science.
Unfortunately, Florida's white syndrome has not slowed in pace even though the most recent global bleaching event has ended and the waters have cooled. The disease is creeping southward, and scientists are trying to figure out why. Most difficult to understand is whether the heat made the pathogen stronger, enabling it to thrive where it wouldn't otherwise, or weakened the coral, making the reefs more susceptible to disease.
"We're not managing our resources properly, and that's driving global change," said David Gilliam, assistant professor of marine and environmental sciences at Nova Southeastern University in Florida. "It's like there's a base level of stress the reefs experience, then periodic moments of stress that drive the bleaching. Then we have all these people, runoff, and other nasty things that are further stressing our system. I think it is naive to think these aren't anthropogenic declines."
Last year, monitoring efforts by Gilliam's team found a 35 percent loss of stony corals off the south Florida coast, he said. One species, the pillar coral, is on the verge of local extinction; only one of 65 known pillar corals remains alive.
Dave Vaughan of Mote Marine Laboratory plants coral in Key West.Mote Marine Laboratory / Conor Goulding
Even so, oceanic experts say all hope is not lost. The state of Florida allocated $1 million for coral disease monitoring and response for 2017–2018. Scientists are also finding novel ways to grow and replant the reefs. Dave Vaughan, executive director of the Mote Marine Laboratory's International Center for Coral Reef Research in Summerland Key, Florida, is breeding local corals to be more resilient to bleaching, warming and disease.
Using a process called microfragmentation, he slices a golf ball–size mountain star coral into hundreds of fragments, and those tiny pieces regrow with impressive vigor. A coral that normally takes three years to grow to the size of a golf ball can now take about three months. When planted close together, the fast-growing corals fuse to form a larger colony.
"We can now bring back half a century of coral in a couple of years," said Vaughan, who planted tens of thousands of corals last year. His goal is to plant a million before he retires in the next decade or so.
The importance of coral reefs cannot be overstated. The Florida Reef Tract provides $6 billion in income each year from tourism, fishing and other business, according to the DEP. Like the 330-year-old mountainous star coral mentioned above, the ancient systems that form this tract are biodiversity hot spots for a wondrous array of marine creatures and also provide essential coastal protection. It's all part of the Sunshine State's allure.
"There's still so much out there to save," said Bohnsack of the future of Florida's reefs. "There are survivors even in some of the most susceptible species. I still have hope."
It’s Time to Raise the Reefs https://t.co/510CHcGaJ1 @Oceanwire @Seasaver @OceanLeadership— EcoWatch (@EcoWatch)1517094909.0
By Dana M Bergstrom, Euan Ritchie, Lesley Hughes and Michael Depledge
In 1992, 1,700 scientists warned that human beings and the natural world were "on a collision course." Seventeen years later, scientists described planetary boundaries within which humans and other life could have a "safe space to operate." These are environmental thresholds, such as the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and changes in land use.
The Good and Bad News<p><span>Ecosystems consist of living and non-living components, and their interactions. They work like a super-complex engine: when some components are removed or stop working, knock-on consequences can lead to system failure.</span></p><p>Our study is based on measured data and observations, not modeling or predictions for the future. Encouragingly, not all ecosystems we examined have collapsed across their entire range. We still have, for instance, some intact reefs on the Great Barrier Reef, especially in deeper waters. And northern Australia has some of the most intact and least-modified stretches of savanna woodlands on Earth.</p><p><span>Still, collapses are happening, including in regions critical for growing food. This includes the </span><a href="https://www.mdba.gov.au/importance-murray-darling-basin/where-basin" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Murray-Darling Basin</a><span>, which covers around 14% of Australia's landmass. Its rivers and other freshwater systems support more than </span><a href="https://www.abs.gov.au/ausstats/[email protected]/latestproducts/94F2007584736094CA2574A50014B1B6?opendocument" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">30% of Australia's food</a><span> production.</span></p><p><span></span><span>The effects of floods, fires, heatwaves and storms do not stop at farm gates; they're felt equally in agricultural areas and natural ecosystems. We shouldn't forget how towns ran out of </span><a href="https://www.mdba.gov.au/issues-murray-darling-basin/drought#effects" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">drinking water</a><span> during the recent drought.</span></p><p><span></span><span>Drinking water is also at risk when ecosystems collapse in our water catchments. In Victoria, for example, the degradation of giant </span><a href="https://theconversation.com/logging-must-stop-in-melbournes-biggest-water-supply-catchment-106922" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Mountain Ash forests</a><span> greatly reduces the amount of water flowing through the Thompson catchment, threatening nearly five million people's drinking water in Melbourne.</span></p><p>This is a dire <em data-redactor-tag="em">wake-up</em> call — not just a <em data-redactor-tag="em">warning</em>. Put bluntly, current changes across the continent, and their potential outcomes, pose an existential threat to our survival, and other life we share environments with.</p><p><span>In investigating patterns of collapse, we found most ecosystems experience multiple, concurrent pressures from both global climate change and regional human impacts (such as land clearing). Pressures are often </span><a href="https://besjournals.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1111/1365-2664.13427" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">additive and extreme</a><span>.</span></p><p>Take the last 11 years in Western Australia as an example.</p><p>In the summer of 2010 and 2011, a <a href="https://theconversation.com/marine-heatwaves-are-getting-hotter-lasting-longer-and-doing-more-damage-95637" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">heatwave</a> spanning more than 300,000 square kilometers ravaged both marine and land ecosystems. The extreme heat devastated forests and woodlands, kelp forests, seagrass meadows and coral reefs. This catastrophe was followed by two cyclones.</p><p>A record-breaking, marine heatwave in late 2019 dealt a further blow. And another marine heatwave is predicted for <a href="https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2020/dec/24/wa-coastline-facing-marine-heatwave-in-early-2021-csiro-predicts" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">this April</a>.</p>
What to Do About It?<p><span>Our brains trust comprises 38 experts from 21 universities, CSIRO and the federal Department of Agriculture Water and Environment. Beyond quantifying and reporting more doom and gloom, we asked the question: what can be done?</span></p><p>We devised a simple but tractable scheme called the 3As:</p><ul><li>Awareness of what is important</li><li>Anticipation of what is coming down the line</li><li>Action to stop the pressures or deal with impacts.</li></ul><p>In our paper, we identify positive actions to help protect or restore ecosystems. Many are already happening. In some cases, ecosystems might be better left to recover by themselves, such as coral after a cyclone.</p><p>In other cases, active human intervention will be required – for example, placing artificial nesting boxes for Carnaby's black cockatoos in areas where old trees have been <a href="https://www.environment.gov.au/biodiversity/threatened/publications/factsheet-carnabys-black-cockatoo-calyptorhynchus-latirostris" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">removed</a>.</p><p><span>"Future-ready" actions are also vital. This includes reinstating </span><a href="https://www.abc.net.au/gardening/factsheets/a-burning-question-fire/12395700" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">cultural burning practices</a><span>, which have </span><a href="https://theconversation.com/australia-you-have-unfinished-business-its-time-to-let-our-fire-people-care-for-this-land-135196" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">multiple values and benefits for Aboriginal communities</a><span> and can help minimize the risk and strength of bushfires.</span></p><p>It might also include replanting banks along the Murray River with species better suited to <a href="https://www.abc.net.au/gardening/factsheets/my-garden-path---matt-hansen/12322978" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">warmer conditions</a>.</p><p>Some actions may be small and localized, but have substantial positive benefits.</p><p>For example, billions of migrating Bogong moths, the main summer food for critically endangered mountain pygmy possums, have not arrived in their typical numbers in Australian alpine regions in recent years. This was further exacerbated by the <a href="https://theconversation.com/six-million-hectares-of-threatened-species-habitat-up-in-smoke-129438" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">2019-20</a> fires. Brilliantly, <a href="https://www.zoo.org.au/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Zoos Victoria</a> anticipated this pressure and developed supplementary food — <a href="https://theconversation.com/looks-like-an-anzac-biscuit-tastes-like-a-protein-bar-bogong-bikkies-help-mountain-pygmy-possums-after-fire-131045" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Bogong bikkies</a>.</p><p><span>Other more challenging, global or large-scale actions must address the </span><a href="https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iICpI9H0GkU&t=34s" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">root cause of environmental threats</a><span>, such as </span><a href="https://www.nature.com/articles/s41559-018-0504-8" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">human population growth and per-capita consumption</a><span> of environmental resources.</span><br></p><p>We must rapidly reduce greenhouse gas emissions to net-zero, remove or suppress invasive species such as <a href="https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1111/mam.12080" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">feral cats</a> and <a href="https://theconversation.com/the-buffel-kerfuffle-how-one-species-quietly-destroys-native-wildlife-and-cultural-sites-in-arid-australia-149456" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">buffel grass</a>, and stop widespread <a href="https://theconversation.com/to-reduce-fire-risk-and-meet-climate-targets-over-300-scientists-call-for-stronger-land-clearing-laws-113172" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">land clearing</a> and other forms of habitat destruction.</p>
Our Lives Depend On It<p>The multiple ecosystem collapses we have documented in Australia are a harbinger for <a href="https://www.iucn.org/news/protected-areas/202102/natures-future-our-future-world-speaks" target="_blank">environments globally</a>.</p><p>The simplicity of the 3As is to show people <em>can</em> do something positive, either at the local level of a landcare group, or at the level of government departments and conservation agencies.</p><p>Our lives and those of our <a href="https://theconversation.com/children-are-our-future-and-the-planets-heres-how-you-can-teach-them-to-take-care-of-it-113759" target="_blank">children</a>, as well as our <a href="https://theconversation.com/taking-care-of-business-the-private-sector-is-waking-up-to-natures-value-153786" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">economies</a>, societies and <a href="https://theconversation.com/to-address-the-ecological-crisis-aboriginal-peoples-must-be-restored-as-custodians-of-country-108594" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">cultures</a>, depend on it.</p><p>We simply cannot afford any further delay.</p><p><em><a rel="noopener noreferrer" href="https://theconversation.com/profiles/dana-m-bergstrom-1008495" target="_blank" style="">Dana M Bergstrom</a> is a principal research scientist at the University of Wollongong. <a rel="noopener noreferrer" href="https://theconversation.com/profiles/euan-ritchie-735" target="_blank" style="">Euan Ritchie</a> is a professor in Wildlife Ecology and Conservation, Centre for Integrative Ecology, School of Life & Environmental Sciences at Deakin University. <a rel="noopener noreferrer" href="https://theconversation.com/profiles/lesley-hughes-5823" target="_blank">Lesley Hughes</a> is a professor at the Department of Biological Sciences at Macquarie University. <a rel="noopener noreferrer" href="https://theconversation.com/profiles/michael-depledge-114659" target="_blank">Michael Depledge</a> is a professor and chair, Environment and Human Health, at the University of Exeter. </em></p><p><em>Disclosure statements: Dana Bergstrom works for the Australian Antarctic Division and is a Visiting Fellow at the University of Wollongong. Her research including fieldwork on Macquarie Island and in Antarctica was supported by the Australian Antarctic Division.</em></p><p><em>Euan Ritchie receives funding from the Australian Research Council, The Australia and Pacific Science Foundation, Australian Geographic, Parks Victoria, Department of Environment, Land, Water and Planning, and the Bushfire and Natural Hazards CRC. Euan Ritchie is a Director (Media Working Group) of the Ecological Society of Australia, and a member of the Australian Mammal Society.</em></p><p><em>Lesley Hughes receives funding from the Australian Research Council. She is a Councillor with the Climate Council of Australia, a member of the Wentworth Group of Concerned Scientists and a Director of WWF-Australia.</em></p><p><em>Michael Depledge does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.</em></p><p><em>Reposted with permission from <a href="https://theconversation.com/existential-threat-to-our-survival-see-the-19-australian-ecosystems-already-collapsing-154077" target="_blank" style="">The Conversation</a>. </em></p>
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