Gulf of Mexico
Diver Rico Diaz swims past a heavily diseased brain coral to try to find a more suitable candidate for treatment. Treatment methods focus on large corals with small lesions in order to optimize treatment effort and distribution. Kristen Ewen, National Park Service

Caribbean - Feds plan $125 million response for mystery disease killing corals in Gulf, Caribbean

The federal government plans to pour $125 million into the fight against a mysterious disease that has ravaged corals in Florida and much of the Caribbean, and now poses a dire threat to the treasured reefs off the Louisiana and Texas coasts.

Released this week, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration plan aims to halt the spread of stony coral tissue loss disease, a newly discovered affliction with a 94% mortality rate among almost two dozen coral species.

Scientists found evidence the disease recently invaded the Gulf of Mexico. NOAA divers in Flower Garden Banks National Marine Sanctuary, a New Orleans-sized sanctuary off the coasts of Louisiana and Texas, spotted corals with lesions and other symptoms associated with stony coral disease. While the disease’s presence in the sanctuary hasn’t been confirmed, one NOAA scientist said coral experts are “90% sure” it’s there.

The disease’s rapid spread and coral-killing prowess are unprecedented.

“We’ve never had a disease with as much impact as stony coral tissue loss disease,” said Andy Bruckner, a NOAA research coordinator.

Identified for the first time in Florida eight years ago, the disease has already decimated large sections of Florida's Coral Reef, North America’s only barrier reef, and quickly spread to the U.S. Virgin Islands, Puerto Rico and at least 20 countries in the Caribbean region.

Scientists working at Flower Garden Banks said a few weeks ago that they didn’t have enough funding to tackle the disease, which requires divers to apply medication directly on the coral’s sores. The new plan aims to change that, earmarking at least $625,000 for the treatment and rescue of corals in the sanctuary. NOAA says the plan will be funded by a combination of government and private-sector sources, including grants and other assistance from nonprofit groups.

NOAA is shipping small colonies of the sanctuary’s corals to an aquarium in Galveston, Texas. The rescued corals could be used to repopulate areas hit hard by the disease.

About 100 miles from the Louisiana coast, the sanctuary includes the northernmost coral reefs in the continental United States and is one of the few places in the Gulf that’s off-limits to commercial fishing and oil and gas exploration.

The sanctuary's fragile corals are a haven for a range of marine life, including endangered sea turtles and giant manta rays. The sanctuary is vital to several commercially important species, including mackerel, grouper and snapper, which use the sanctuary to spawn and find food.

There’s worry that the disease could wipe out the corals that form the foundation of the sanctuary’s reefs.

NOAA’s plan will focus on determining the disease’s cause, how it moves from reef to reef, as well as greatly expand treatment and intervention at several locations.

A key element of the plan is preventing its spread to the Pacific Ocean. NOAA is working with several Pacific nations on a possible collective response to the disease's migration to other oceans, which is regarded as nearly inevitable.

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