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Bacteria Is Attacking Florida’s Coral

A researcher checks a coral colony.
FWC Fish and Wildlife Research Institute
The Florida Channel
Leon County Judge John Cooper on June 30, 2022, in a screen grab from The Florida Channel.
A researcher checks a coral colony.
Credit FWC Fish and Wildlife Research Institute
The Florida Channel
A researcher checks a coral colony.

Hurricanes and warming ocean waters have led to damage in Florida’s coral reefs. Now experts say the state’s corals are facing a new danger—an especially pervasive bacteria.

A few years ago scientists began to see white marks showing up on coral off Florida’s coast—indicating some of the tissue had died.  

Rob Ruzicka  works with the with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission’s Research Institute. He say once a lesion showed up on a piece of coral, it could be dead within a few months. And he says that rapid rate of progression indicated something scientists had not seen before.  

He updated FWC commissioners on the issue during their recent meeting.  Ruzicka says scientists first noticed the lesions in 2014 near Miami-Dade County. By 2016 the disease was impacting coral in Palm Beach County and the upper Keys and continuing to spread.  Then, last year, Hurricane Irma hit.

 “It has encompassed now about two-thirds of the entire Florida reef track. And it is slowly making its way westward toward Key West. Hurricane Irma was a major issue with the spread of this disease because it stirred up the water and the mechanism for transporting the pathogen across became convoluted because it had followed this steady pattern of moving Westward through 2017 to the middle keys. But now it’s popping up on reefs in isolated areas,” Ruzicka says.

Officials are working to identify the source of the bacteria, but John Hunt, a biologist with FWC says it’s difficult to narrow down the exact cause.

“We can point to a series of coincident events that happened at the time the disease became noticed,” Hunt says

For example Hunt says at that time a dredging project was underway. It was also summer and water temperatures were warmer—stressing the coral. And evidence of the disease was first found near a sewage outfall. Joanna Walczak with the Department of Environmental Protection says with the coral facing so many stressors at once, even something minor could be devastating.

“I always liken it to being a human—if you’re eating bad food, drinking bad water and breathing bad air, a little cut can land you in the hospital and potentially lead to your death, but it’s the same thing,” Walczak says.

Walczak says it’s important to try to reverse the damage, and prevent future harm. She says coral plays an essential role in the environment as well as the economy and human health.

“This is a $6-billion annual income to South Florida—sales and income alone. That is not valuing the over $100-million in shoreline protection that we get from the flood reduction. Coral reefs are our first line of defense. They are breaking the energy that hits our beaches and if we really care about South Florida’s real estate and beaches we should be carrying about the preservation of our coral reefs,” Walczak says.

Walczak says coral reefs provide a habitat for the fish we eat and she says scientists have even found cancer and anti-inflammatory treatment drugs in coral reef organisms. During the FWC meeting scientists said they hoped working to improve coral habitats and to replant reefs with nursery grown coral would help to rebuild the damaged reefs.

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