Coral reefs are the most beautiful, colourful, biodiverse marine ecosystems in the world, but they are also very fragile, and vulnerable to disease. If you are blessed to live near a coral reef, or fortunate to have visited one, then you may have firsthand knowledge of their beauty and importance.
Persons visiting, or living on the island of Anguilla, have many opportunities to discover an ‘underwater paradise’, as they explore the beauty and diversity of the numerous coral reefs along its coastlines. Sadly, it has recently been reported that the health of Anguilla’s coral reefs is threatened by a lethal disease – Stony Coral Tissue-Loss Disease (SCTLD).Anguilla Fisheries Officer, Mr. Vincent Webster, reported recently that SCTLD has been identified in some of the stony coral that makes up Anguilla’s coral reefs. The discovery was made during a 3-day workshop headed by Dr. Greta Aeby, a subcontractor based in Hawaii, and Abbie Dosell from the Joint Nature Conservation Committee (JNCC) based in the UK. Divers from the Anguilla Fisheries Department participated in the workshop’s hands-on exercises, as part of their annual training in marine monitoring.
SCTLD is a fairly new disease that was first reported in Florida in 2014. It is characterised by “small circular or irregular patches of white, exposed skeleton devoid of tissue. The tissue sloughs off, leaving the white skeleton exposed until algae colonise it. The disease radiates across the colony and outward”, says Dr. Andy Buckner, research coordinator for Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary. “Its cause is unknown, although evidence points to a bacterial pathogen that is transmitted by touch and water circulation”, as the most likely cause. Once SCTLD is present in stony coral, the disease progresses rapidly. It quickly spreads from one coral to another and, within weeks or months, an entire colony can become infected and die.
Coral is not a single animal but, rather, a colony made up of thousands of identical and interconnected coral polyps held together by calcium carbonate. Anguilla’s coral reefs are built mostly of stony coral whose polyps cluster in groups. These coral reefs are beneficial to Anguilla and Anguillians ecologically, aesthetically, and economically.Coral reefs protect Anguilla’s coastlines from some of the harsh effects of battering storms and hurricanes. They break the waves that crash against the coastline, or come inland, thus minimising land-loss due to the impact of erosion. Coral reefs offer opportunities for recreation. They provide ocean lovers, snorkelers, divers, and swimmers breath-taking and up close encounters with colourful underwater plant and animal species. Coral reefs serve as breeding grounds and sanctuaries for many species of fish, and fishing offers a traditional livelihood experience for many fisher folk, and a naturally recurring source of food for persons and restaurateurs on Anguilla. Just as plants produce oxygen for humans and other mammals to live on earth, corals produce much needed oxygen for the oceans to keep species that live in them alive.
As a people, we can fight the effects of global warming and lessen the large-scale threats to reef ecosystems by reducing Anguilla’s carbon footprint. As individuals, we can take small steps now that will help to save Anguilla’s coral reefs by keeping them healthy:o We can avoid using chemicals and pesticides in cultivating our agricultural lands. During rainfall, chemicals from the agricultural plots, and backyard farms, run off into the ocean and contaminate the coral reefs.o We can use only reef-safe sunscreens. Ingredients such as oxybenzone and avobenzone found in some sunscreens are lethal (even in small amounts) to coral – effecting their reproductive cycles, damaging their DNAs, and worsening the effects of coral bleaching.o We can avoid excessive motor boating and jet skiing, as the oils and fuels from the motors can kill corals or impede their reproduction, growth, behaviour, and development.o We can use mooring buoys when boating to avoid anchoring on and injuring coral structures.o We can avoid littering. Trash and other marine debris can rub against or become lodged or embedded in coral structures, impacting their health.o We can avoid brushing against or touching corals while diving and snorkeling along the reefs.
Scientists are predicting that all coral reefs will be considered “threatened” by 2050. When it comes to saving Anguilla’s coral reefs, multiple factors are involved; but when we become aware of the threats, when we continue to learn about their impacts, when we begin to take preventive and corrective action against the underlying causes, we give our coral reefs a better chance at survival.
Fortunately, if each of us commits to “all hands on deck”, in this unprecedented effort and response, there is hope for saving Anguilla’s stony coral reefs – hope that the environmental factors causing Stony Coral Tissue-Loss Disease (SCTLD) can be mitigated, hope that the SCTLD can be successfully treated and eradicated, hope that the stony coral can continue to grow and thrive, and hope that Anguilla’s coral reefs can remain protected from SCTLD and other diseases.