Puerto Rico has declared an ecological state of emergency as the island’s coral reefs are consumed by a disease that causes the coral to lose tissue, leaving behind only a skeleton.
The disease, stony coral tissue loss disease, was first identified in Florida in 2014, but has traveled south, possibly on boats, to the far reaches of the Caribbean Sea since then. It was first spotted on the eastern coast of Puerto Rico in 2019, according to the Atlantic and Gulf Rapid Reef Assessment Organization, and has since spread from the small islands east of Puerto Rico to the northern and southern shores of the big island.
The disease “poses a particularly significant threat to Caribbean reefs” because it affects some 20 species of hard coral and its mortality rate can be anywhere between 66 and 100 percent, the Reef Resilience Network said. Because it spreads among coral colonies by water circulation, it creates an explosion of infections that lead to mass mortality, making it very difficult to keep at bay. It takes hundreds of years for the colonies to regrow.
The declaration of a state of emergency this week allows Governor Pedro Pierluisi to allocate a million dollars to mitigate the crisis, but it is unclear what will be done with the money. The only treatment known so far is a highly labor intensive effort to apply antibacterial ointment on the affected coral. Instead, scientists have mostly focused on coral restoration efforts.
The coral reefs are essential to the island’s marine ecosystem, and support the territory’s economy and its fisheries. A study by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration found that visitors to Puerto Rico’s reefs spend nearly 2 billion dollars a year on the island, generating about four percent of the territory’s GDP.
So far, marine biologists have not identified which pathogen, likely a bacterium, causes the erosion of coral tissue. There is no reliable way to stop the disease from spreading to new patches of hard coral, according to Melina Soto at the Healthy Reefs Initiative who spoke recently with VICE World News about the disease.
In his declaration of emergency, Governor Pierluisi added that the government’s focus on the COVID-19 pandemic allowed the coral disease to spread among the island’s coral reefs. “We have to put this situation in the context of the natural disasters we have had, and the economic crisis and the pandemic. All of this has prevented an adequate response.”
Pierluisi also emphasized the importance of the reefs for protection from the effects of climate change, namely stronger and more frequent hurricanes in the Caribbean Sea.
Coral reefs act as a critical buffer against storm surges. Puerto Rico has been devastated by hurricanes over the last few years, particularly Hurricanes Irma and Maria in 2017. Loss of the coral reefs could make the island even more vulnerable to mass casualties and destruction of property.