Mystery disease spreads, threatens reefs in florida keys electricity projects for class 12

LOOE KEY, Fla. — A mysterious disease hammering Florida’s dwindling reefs was found for the first time this week in the Lower Keys, alarming scientists who’ve used epoxy adhesive bandages, amputated sick coral and even set up underwater “fire breaks” in a four-year battle to contain the outbreak.

The discovery off Looe Key, south of Big Pine in part of the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary, puts in jeopardy the southern end of the world’s third-largest barrier reef — a scuba-diving destination renowned for its biological diversity. It’s also more bad news for a reef that has lost half its coral over the last two centuries, already is suffering impacts from climate change and has emerged from a three-year bleaching event.

The disease, which now stands as the longest and largest infection for coral anywhere, jumped a gap in the 360-mile long reef tract at the Seven Mile Bridge, a point scientists had hoped would provide a natural obstacle. It first appeared off Virginia Key in 2014 and began spreading north, south and west. But until November 2017, it appeared to stop at the east end of the famous Keys bridge, Muller said.

The Florida Current, which flows around the Florida Straits north into the Gulf Stream, likely carried it to Martin County, with smaller eddies spreading it south and west, Muller said. When coral began falling sick near Virginia Key, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers was in the midst of dredging Government Cut. Miami-Dade County also has a massive sewage outfall pipe nearby. It’s not clear whether either triggered the disease, or contributed to the spread on already stressed coral that also endured back-to-back warm summers beginning in 2014.

A large team of researchers led by the Florida Department of Environmental Protection with help from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, universities and nonprofits including Mote have set up a joint investigation. They have so far been unable to identify the bacteria causing the disease because they’ve been unable to grow cultures. Coral, like people, collect countless bacteria — some good and some bad. To identify the bad, researchers need to grow the suspected pathogens and apply it to healthy coral in a lab.

Brain and large boulder coral, the tract’s biggest reef builders, appear to be more susceptible, but scientists aren’t sure why, Muller said. They’ve tried a number of ways in lab experiments to treat it — cutting out sick coral, applying chlorine-laced epoxy as an adhesive bandage to create an antiseptic barrier and carving out fire breaks around reefs. They’re also experimenting with a paste laced with antibiotics, trying to find a balance that will treat the coral but not contaminate reefs that already struggle with antibiotics from sewage outfall.

The only other comparable disease outbreak occurred in the 1970s and ’80s and nearly wiped out staghorn and elkhorn corals, which landed both on the endangered species list. Scientists still don’t know what caused them to become sick, but Muller said there’s more hope for this epidemic. Coral science has advanced dramatically in the last four decades and reef rebuilding efforts started, with nurseries from the Keys to Miami growing coral. In recent years, Mote alone has planted 35,000 with plans to plant another 25,000 this year. Scientists are also working on developing more resilient coral.