Dreaded coral disease hits popular scuba diving spot in the Abacos

Dreaded coral disease hits popular scuba diving spot in the Abacos

NASSAU, BAHAMAS — Researchers are reporting that the dreaded Stony Coral Tissue Loss Disease (SCTLD) has reached one of the country’s most treasured and vibrant dive sites, leaving environmentalists scrambling to save it.

Sandy Cay Reef, a renowned scuba spot within the Pelican Cays Land and Sea Park in Abaco, is the latest victim of the coral pandemic. In March, marine scientists from the Perry Institute for Marine Science (PIMS) discovered the deadly disease had infiltrated Abaco’s Sandy Cay Reef, wreaking havoc on its famously diverse array of corals, including the colossal pillar and mountainous star colonies that have flourished there for centuries.

Sandy Cay Reef is renowned for having the highest living coral cover of any reef surveyed in The Bahamas, as revealed by the Perry Institute’s 2020 Coral Reef Report Card.

For over a decade, PIMS has led reef health surveys throughout the country in partnership with The Bahamas National Trust (BNT), Friends of the Environment, the Government of The Bahamas, and many others.

Valeria Pizarro, a senior scientist at the Perry Institute who is leading the battle against SCTLD in The Bahamas, expressed the gravity of the situation as a “significant setback” to conservation efforts in The Bahamas.

Valeria Pizarro, a senior scientist at the Perry Institute

“This is a rare and breathtaking reef, one that is beloved by locals and tourists alike,” she said. “Its loss would be devastating to the entire community.”

The Perry Institute’s urgent work is being carried out in accordance with their contract with the Government of The Bahamas to slow the disease’s spread.

Just weeks after the alarming discovery, Pizarro’s team raced back to Sandy Cay to administer life-saving antibiotics to hundreds of disease-stricken corals, prioritizing the largest colonies and most vulnerable species, such as pillar and flower corals. They partnered with SeaKeepers International and Barton & Gray Mariners Club to operate from a liveaboard, affording them the time to conduct vital damage-assessment surveys as well. The fight continues as PIMS returns to Nassau to gather more resources for treating corals in the remote location.

The Perry Institute, an international non-profit organization with Bahamian roots, has been working to combat the disease since it first surfaced in The Bahamas in 2019. But challenges with research permits throughout 2021 and 2022 hindered the efforts of PIMS and its partners, allowing the disease to spread uncontrolled around Abaco.

Lakeshia Anderson-Rolle, Executive Director of the Bahamas National Trust (BNT)

Lakeshia Anderson-Rolle, the newly appointed Executive Director of the Bahamas National Trust (BNT), emphasized the importance of conservation measures: “As a top-tier diving destination, The Bahamas is renowned for its world-class national parks and diverse coral reefs. The impact of SCTLD on these reefs underscores the critical need for steadfast and forward-thinking conservation measures.

“We cannot afford to take our marine ecosystems for granted, and immediate action is needed now to safeguard coral reefs within protected areas and other key reef sites across the archipelago,” Anderson-Rolle charged.

SCTLD, which first surfaced in Florida in 2014, has decimated coral reefs throughout the Caribbean.  Within The Bahamas alone, the disease has spread to ten major islands, leaving marine experts deeply concerned.  The unusually high mortality rate among susceptible coral species poses a catastrophic threat to marine habitats and the Caribbean way of life, which is inextricably connected to the sea.

Although the exact cause of SCTLD continues to elude scientists around the world, research by the Perry Institute revealed that coral reefs near shipping ports in Grand Bahama and Nassau were hit hardest initially, suggesting that the disease may have arrived through commercial ships discharging waste and ballast water containing the disease. It has since spread rapidly between islands, likely via smaller boats.

PIMS and its partners are working to treat corals within the stunning reef and prevent the disease from spreading further, particularly to the nearby Mermaid reef. Located in a shallow area where summer temperatures can soar to nearly 91F (33C), Mermaid Reef has never experienced a bleaching event, a rare feat given the stresses that many coral reefs are facing in the age of climate change. Some researchers view Mermaid Reef as a natural laboratory to explore the secrets of coral resistance and resilience in the face of climate change – making the potential arrival of the disease cause for concern..

Cha Boyce, Executive Director of Friends of the Environment—a non-profit organization in Abaco focused on environmental education initiatives – lamented the devastation: “As someone who has been diving on Sandy Cay Reef for over 50 years, it’s heartbreaking to imagine these once vibrant and kaleidoscopic corals becoming barren and lifeless. We need to do everything in our power to stop the spread of this disease and protect the future of our ocean.”

The repercussions of SCTLD extend far beyond Sandy Cay and Mermaid Reef, however, as coral reefs provide essential ecosystem services, including coastal protection and food security for millions worldwide.

The Bahamian economy heavily depends on tourism and fishing, both of which rely on the health of its coral reefs.  The spiny lobster fishery, for example, has been said to be valued at $90 million a year and employs some 9,000 people.

Krista Sherman, the first Bahamian woman to earn a PhD in marine biology pointed out that the death of these reefs may sound the death knell for these industries as well.

To help combat SCTLD, those enjoying water activities are encouraged by PIMS to take precautions, such as avoiding contact with diseased corals, disinfecting their equipment and dive gear thoroughly, and reporting sightings of diseased corals to PIMS.

Individuals owning boats and eager to contribute to stopping the progression of SCTLD are encouraged to connect with the Perry Institute by emailing coral@perryinstitute.org or reaching out through WhatsApp at +1 206 201-9460.