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Stony Coral TIssue Loss Disease (SCTLD) in the USVI

A new Coral Disease in the US Virgin Islands

Signs of coral disease were found on pilings at the Cyril E. King Airport, St. Thomas. Photo by Joseph Townsend on February 2, 2019

Signs of coral disease were found on pilings at the Cyril E. King Airport, St. Thomas. Photo by Joseph Townsend on February 2, 2019

First observed in January 2019, coral researchers have identified an new coral disease outbreak on the reefs of southwestern St. Thomas, USVI. Scientists believe this may be the same or a similar disease as one which struck the Florida Keys beginning in 2014: Stony Coral Tissue Loss Disease (SCTLD).

SCTLD has already caused major loss of vital coral reef habitat throughout the Florida Keys.

The new affliction is remarkably distinct from other diseases; it spreads across a colony rapidly and even larger coral colonies can lose major portions of living tissue, leaving behind large stark white lesions. The disease is of no threat to humans, but scientists are gravely concerned about what the findings may mean for the remaining valuable reefs in this area.

In collaboration with researchers at the University of the Virgin Islands (UVI), scientists across the Caribbean have begun work to understand the pathology, epidemiology, and distribution of presumed-SCTLD in the Territory.

 

visit The Department of Planning and Natural Resources website to Learn the latest news about the outbreak and gather reports of the disease.

For more information see: www.dpnr.vi.gov/czm/sctld

 

CUrrent Research at the University of the virgin Islands

Dr. Marilyn Brandt, a Research Associate Professor at the University of the Virgin Islands, is leading the effort to gain an understanding of the distribution and the extent of the disease in real time. As a part of the Territorial Coral Reef Monitoring Program, an NSF-funded long-term monitoring program for reefs across the US Virgin Islands since 2001, many of the locations where disease has been observed have been extensively studied and monitored previously thanks to Dr. Tyler Smith, a Research Associate Professor at UVI. Using these locations and observed presence in other locations, Dr. Brandt, Dr. Smith, and UVI Marine Science staff and students are surveying reefs all around the US Virgin Islands to understand extent and spread of the disease, and possible reasons for immunity.

Brain coral with SCTLD, photo by Joseph Townsend on February 2, 2019

Brain coral with SCTLD, photo by Joseph Townsend on February 2, 2019

Based on previous research in Florida surrounding SCTLD, brain coral and maze coral have been identified as particularly susceptible, and often can function as a “canary in the coal mine” to indicate the arrival of the disease on a reef. Pillar coral, flower coral, and smooth flower coral have also been identified as particularly susceptible. What is clear, however, is that once the disease is present, it has the ability to affect a wide range of coral, with only mustard hill coral, finger corals, elkhorn coral, and staghorn coral identified as having low susceptibility.

 

Collaborations For disease Response

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Understanding the severity of this outbreak, resource managers, dive shop operators, and researchers from across the United States have joined in collaboration with researchers at the Center for Marine and Environmental Studies at the University of the Virgin Islands to develop a plan to understand and effectively control this disease.

Dr. Brandt and Dr. Smith are also working with Dr. Daniel Holstein, a past VI-EPSCoR Post-doctoral Research Associate and currently an Assistant Professor of Oceanography and Coastal Sciences at Louisiana State University, as well as Dr. Laura Mydlarz, a Professor of Biology at the University of Texas at Arlington, Dr. Amy Apprill, an Associate Scientist at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, Dr. Adrienne Correa, an Assistant Professor of Biosciences at Rice University, and Dr. Erinn Muller, Science Director of Mote Marine Laboratory’s Elizabeth Moore International Center for Coral Reef Research and Restoration. Together the research group is working to understand how water currents may determine disease spread among reefs, identify bacterial and viral activity associated with the disease, and determine immune response of corals to the disease.

Masters student Kathryn Cobleigh has been examining the microbial community of White Plague as a part of her thesis. She is now applying that knowledge to address this new disease in the US Virgin Islands.

Masters student Kathryn Cobleigh has been examining the microbial community of White Plague as a part of her thesis. She is now applying that knowledge to address this new disease in the US Virgin Islands.

First-year Masters student Sonora Meiling examining a diseased pillar coral as a part of the ongoing survey of disease around the USVI.

First-year Masters student Sonora Meiling examining a diseased pillar coral as a part of the ongoing survey of disease around the USVI.

Student Research

In addition to understanding the disease distribution, current students in the Masters of Marine and Environmental Sciences program at UVI are hard at work in their efforts to understand the nature of coral disease itself.

Under the guidance of Dr. Brandt, second-year student Kathryn Cobleigh has spent the past year investigating the change in bacterial communities associated with white plague, another severe coral disease. Cobleigh now sits on the front lines of this emerging disease, and is applying her work from her thesis to better understand it.

Additionally first-year students Sonora Meiling and Naomi Huntley are currently preparing masters thesis projects focused on understanding key aspects of the outbreak. Meiling is preparing a disease transmission experiment to understand how the disease is passed between different species, and Huntley is studying the bacterial communities associated with sick and healthy colonies to identify possible pathogens and responses.

 

As the disease spreads around the US Virgin Islands, it is critical for all ocean-lovers to help prevent introduction to uncontaminated areas and report observations of the disease as soon as possible.

 

For the most up-to-date news and information regarding the outbreak, see the official page by the Department of Planning and Natural Resources: http://www.dpnr.vi.gov/czm/sctld

more ways to help

In order to prevent additional of the spread of the disease, it is encouraged that if possible areas with moderately to severely affected areas be avoided. If these areas are visited, all equipment in contact with the water should be disinfected before re-entering the water elsewhere.

Additionally, if swimmers observe abnormally large white portions of a coral skeleton, particularly on brain coral, maze coral, or pillar coral, the location should be noted and if possible a photo of the coral taken. Photos of diseased corals along with their approximate location can be reported to the Department of Planning and Natural Resources Coastal Zone Management division (CZM) by email (CZM@dpnr.vi.gov) or by phone (340-774-3320). As always, avoid placing excess stress on the corals by ensuring anchors are dropped away from coral, and litter is not left on beaches or reefs.

 

If the disease is sighted, report its location to the department of planning and natural resources as soon as possible.

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The Department of Planning and Natural Resources has recommended that reports of disease be submitted using the Bleachwatch VI website or mobile app, available for free in the Google Play store and Apple store.

Additionally, the Coastal Zone Management Division can also be reached directly by phone (340-774-3320) or email (CZM@dpnr.vi.gov) with the phrase “SCTLD” in the subject line.

 

DPNR has released the following flyer in reference to the disease

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