Florida Keys

A killer coral disease is spreading toward Key West reefs, researcher says

A mysterious disease spreading across Florida's reef tract, the third largest barrier reef in the world, is now spreading in the direction of Key West. The outbreak is now the longest and largest infectious disease outbreak for any coral.
A mysterious disease spreading across Florida's reef tract, the third largest barrier reef in the world, is now spreading in the direction of Key West. The outbreak is now the longest and largest infectious disease outbreak for any coral. Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission

A disease quickly destroying coral along Florida's reef tract will reach Key West by fall, a university researcher said Tuesday.

The disease, which lacks a name and a definitive origin aside from some type of bacterial infection, is moving at such a fast clip that it's due to strike the southern end of the world's third-largest barrier reef within months.

“I feel like every talk I give, I’m the bearer of bad news the past few months,” said Karen Neely, a research scientist at Nova Southeastern University in Hollywood. “We still have a really long way to go to find a treatment. We have a lot of work to do.”

Neely was speaking at a gathering of the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary Advisory Council, which meets every two months in Marathon.

The coral disease first appeared off Miami's Virginia Key in 2014 and began spreading north, south and west. But until November 2017, it appeared to stop at the east end of Marathon's Seven Mile Bridge. But it was discovered in the Lower Keys in mid-April.

“Over half of our species on the reef are susceptible to this disease,” Neely said.

A field test May 18 off Sombrero Beach in Marathon showed the destruction the disease had done to the west end of the reef.

“If you’ve been out to Sombrero, it’s lit up right now,” Neely said. “Everything is diseased.”

A large team effort of federal, state, university researchers and nonprofits has been focused on combating the disease.

“There’s a lot going on in response to this event and there has been for many years,” said Sarah Fangman, sanctuary superintendent. “Restoration is really important in the conversation as well. Some species aren’t as susceptible to this event. Can we be out planting?”

The sanctuary will host a coral workshop on the disease July 11-13 in Key Largo, Fangman said. The exact location hasn’t been determined yet.

The disease could seemingly have one of the most devastating impacts on the Florida Keys coral reef tract in modern times, said Michael P. Crosby, CEO and president of Mote Marine Laboratory.

While Neely ticked off a number of treatment experiments done on dying coral, including applying chlorine and epoxy, dousing water with antibiotic or a paste laced with antibiotics — which Neely said isn’t a feasible treatment in the ocean — Crosby said Mote's focus is on restoration, or the planting of new, resilient coral.

Restoration is the answer, he said, and that requires financing to get things moving.

In recent years, Mote alone has planted 35,000 coral with plans to plant 25,000 more this year.

“We are fairly confident the science and technology we’ve been working diligently on for a number of years does provide the answers for how we are going to respond to this massive disease situation," Crosby said.

“This disease is really causing large-scale loss of remaining coral cover,” Crosby said. “We need to respond to this now.”

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