Several coral species could go locally extinct in Florida from white-plague disease

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coral disease
A white-plague disease infected coral. By William F. Precht.
coral bleaching
Bleached brain corals. By Cindy Lewis / Keys Marine Lab.

A mysterious disease is killing Florida corals, and a coral reef ecologist says the disease is still spreading and causing local extinctions of some coral species. What’s called white-plague disease spread when corals were already stressed and vulnerable after heat waves caused widespread coral bleaching. During a conference with reporters Thursday, the director of marine and coastal programs for the Miami consulting firm Dial Cordy and Associates, William Precht, said nearly all individuals of certain coral species have died from the disease.

“We lost 98% of [the brain coral Meandrina meandrites]. We lost 97% of this starlet coral, Dichocoenia stokesi; 93% of the large-grooved brain coral and so on and so on. So in some areas, this is essentially equivalent to local extinction; an ecological extirpation of these species locally from Miami-Dade colony. And when you go out and swim on the reefs of Miami-Dade County today it would be a very rare chance encounter that you would see some of these three or four species … which is really catastrophic.

“Why was this white plague disease unprecedented? Well, besides the fact that it occurred following this thermal anomaly, it has extremely high prevalence at both the community and species level. Exceedingly high mortality of individual species. The long duration of the event; it is still continuing today. In fact, the Miami Herald ran an article that the disease was just spotted in Looe Key in the southern Florida Keys. Which basically shows that now we are tracking the spread of this disease over a four year period of time.”

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Precht says losing corals would be devastating for fishing and tourism in Florida.

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Another coral biologist on the conference call with reporters reiterated that the years 2014 through 2017 were the four hottest years on record and that triggered a multi-year coral bleaching event across the globe, including in Florida in 2014 and 2015. NOAA’s Mark Eakin says really the only way to protect vulnerable corals would be to “get global warming under control” by reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

 

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