Stuart Magazine: The Disease Threatening Coral Reefs in Martin County

Article Posted on January 1, 2019

By: Eric Barton, Stuart Magazine

Just off our shores, not much more than a good swim from the sand, you could, until recently, find the most majestic of creatures, on land or at sea. Scientists named it orbicella faveolata. But a dive boat captain would tell you to look for the mountainous star coral, a name befitting its stature.

It began its life in 1694, one year before the Spanish built the Castillo de San Marcos fort in St. Augustine. For 323 years it grew slowly into a formation of coral the size of a Volkswagen, covered in small ridges and peaks, the color of rich mustard and pockmarked with little holes where it takes in life.

“It was pretty spectacular and impossible to replace,” says Martin County Commissioner Doug Smith. “We’re talking about a coral, a living creature, that was more than 300 years old. That’s extremely unique.”

Scientists first noticed a lesion on it in October two years ago. They hoped they could cut the infection off, like amputating a gangrenous limb to save a soldier. By the time they went back for another inspection two months later, the entire thing was infected.

It died in January 2017.

How we lost this mountainous star coral has stumped scientists. They first discovered a mysterious illness killing coral off the coast of Florida in 2014. Since then, at least a quarter, and maybe as much as two-thirds, of the reef coral from Martin County to Key West has died off.

“The smartest minds in coral around are working on this,” says Kathy Fitzpatrick, coastal engineer for Martin County. She’s part of a taskforce set up to track and try to prevent the disease from spreading. “But yet, we haven’t been able to figure out how to stop it.”

The disease began three years ago during a time when ocean waters over the world warmed, causing coral to die from Australia to the Caribbean. The scientists called it coral bleaching, and when the ocean cooled months later, the disease stopped.

But Florida’s coral continued to die. Scientists figured it was something worse than the bleaching. They called it white plague or white blotch. As it spreads, it leaves the coral looking like ghostly skeletons, devoid of color and turning quickly to crumbly limestone. In Martin County, the northern tip of Florida’s reef, scientists first spotted the white plague in summer 2017, according to the Florida Department of Environmental Protection. At least 50 to 60 percent of the coral in Martin County appears susceptible to the disease, Fitzpatrick says…

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