Coral reefs in the Florida Keys and off southeast Florida could be devastated by a disease that shows no signs of abating.
The 360 miles of the Florida Reef Tract has been stricken by “an unprecedented disease outbreak — the most serious coral-disease epidemic on record globally — [that] is ravaging reefs,” U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson alerted federal agency leaders last Tuesday in a letter to the federal departments of Agriculture, Commerce and Health and Human Services.
Nelson, ranking member of the Senate Commerce Committee, urged federal experts to create “an interagency strike team” to study and halt the spread of the mysterious disease.
The threat, which started off Miami’s Virginia Key, has spread north and south, reaching into the Upper Keys as far as Islamorada.
“The disease is progressing very quickly, and perhaps most disturbing is that we are seeing it in many of the reef-building corals,” Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary Superintendent Sarah Fangman said Friday.
Reefs suffering from blight include Grecian Rocks off Key Largo and Hens and Chickens off Islamorada.
“It is infecting nearly half of the coral species that inhabit the sanctuary,” Fangman said, “with more than half of the Florida Reef Tract affected.”
Those species include “all the primary, massive reef builders along the Florida Reef Tract,” Karen Bohnsack of the Florida Department of Environmental Protection said in a December presentation to the Florida Keys Sanctuary Advisory Council.
“If a colony becomes infected, it will likely suffer 100 percent mortality,” she said.
Nelson said the deadly coral disease “is more than just an environmental problem. Florida’s coral reefs attract over 16 million visitors each year, are estimated to bring in over $6 billion of revenues to the state, and provide over 71,000 jobs.”
Reefs damaged by Hurricane Irma seem susceptible to the disease, he wrote.
A response team can take samples to identify the disease and perform tests “to identify the most effective treatments for saving the remaining colonies,” Nelson said.
“Early evidence shows the infectious disease may be transmitted by touch and through the water column, which makes it difficult to contain,” Fangman said.
“Identifying disease-resistant types of corals will be important to prioritize growing in nurseries to replant back on the reef in the future.”
Kevin Wadlow: 305-440-3206