Oct 7, 2022 - Energy & Environment

A Caribbean coral catastrophe

Illustration of an emergency light with coral inside

Illustration: Natalie Peeples/Axios

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has released a new plan to tackle a mysterious, plague-like affliction that is decimating coral reef populations off the Florida Keys and throughout the wider Caribbean.

Why it matters: Some say not enough is being done to address the impacts of stony coral tissue loss disease — which is made worse by climate change — on coral reefs in the Caribbean, where local economy depends on their continued survival.

  • Much of the broader consequences of the disease — and what even causes it in the first place — are still unknown.
  • “For coral disease research, we’re still kind of in the Dark Ages,” said Andy Bruckner, research coordinator at the NOAA Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary, at a press briefing on Wednesday.
  • “We're kind of like where we were with human medicine in the late 1800s. We're just learning.”

Details: Part of NOAA's new response and recovery plan proposes spending more than $36 million on establishing a U.S. Caribbean coral rescue effort, in order to expand the response to the outbreak in the region.

Between the lines: The NOAA plan comes two years after the agency released its first one — and this has an implementation timeline of five years, throughout which funding will still need to be secured.

Yes, but: Given what's on the line for the Caribbean communities already dealing with pollution and climate change wiping out reefs, multiple researchers told Axios that the pace of the disease warrants urgency and intervention.

  • “It’s like a doctor that keeps seeing a patient that is dying,” Ximena Escovar-Fadul, senior associate at The Nature Conservancy, told Axios.
  • “And the doctor monitors the patient and monitors the patient and keeps monitoring the patient, but it doesn't do anything to save the patient's life.”

Threat level: Across the region, coral tissue disease is spreading quickly and killing swaths of corals in its path.

  • From the Bahamas to Grenada, NOAA has identified it in 22 Caribbean countries and territories.
  • It was first spotted in the Keys in 2014, where it now afflicts 96,000 acres of Florida's Coral Reef, before spreading to the northern Mesoamerican Reef in 2018. Scientists are working to keep it from breaching the Indo-Pacific.
  • According to authors of a 2022 study published in the journal Communications Biology, the disease is expected to become “the most lethal disturbance ever recorded in the Caribbean.”

The big picture: The economic consequences could be serious. Coral reef-adjacent activities alone generate an estimated $5.7 billion per year from 7.4 million visitors in the Caribbean, according to a 2018 report by the Nature Conservancy.

  • When combined with reef-dependent tourism activities, they generate $7.9 billion annually from roughly 11 million visitors — with tourism contributing to 13.9% of the region’s annual GDP in 2019 and supporting 15% of employment.
  • Reefs are also central to Caribbean culture. "Not only is it important for tourism, but it's a way of life," Caribbean coral reef ecologist Anjani Ganase told Axios.
  • In addition, reefs act as natural storm barriers — breaking the force of storm surges and wave action during rapidly strengthening hurricanes.

Of note: Prompting rapid tissue loss, the highly infectious disease is likely aggravated by the compounding impacts of climate change.

  • Warming ocean temperatures and human disturbances are expected to intensify the frequency and severity of the disease, according to NOAA.
  • Human-driven global warming is increasing marine temperatures and altering ocean chemistry in ways that make life more perilous for corals, including leading to more coral bleaching events.
  • "We still have these chronic issues that exacerbate the situation," Ganase told Axios. "And climate change being the worst of it."
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