Underwater ‘pandemic’ an urgent threat to our way of life

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When a coral becomes infected with Stony Coral Tissue Loss Disease (left) it can be completely dead within a matter of weeks (right). This relentless, dangerous malady is sweeping across our underwater landscape, threatening the fishing, diving and tourism industries. Solutions exist and help has been offered, but the government is dragging its feet.

Right now, today, the Bahamas is facing one of the most urgent and deadly threat to our reefs, our fisheries and ultimately, our entire way of life, that I have witnessed in more than half a century on the front line of environmental advocacy.

A deadly, fast-moving infectious disease is ravishing huge areas of our precious coral reefs, the cradle of undersea life and critical habitat for our abundant marine resources. It is impossible to exaggerate the threat we now face from what has become known as ‘coral COVID’. This silent invader is contagious as the Corona Virus and as deadly as Ebola for corals. Once a coral becomes infected, it will most likely be dead in a matter of months or even weeks.

I personally witnessed this horrifying scourge in action during a recent diving trip in Grand Bahama. What I saw can only be described as an underwater massacre. I have never seen anything like it – huge swaths of formerly vibrant reef, once bursting with color and life, have become a barren, lifeless desert. A cold, gray, underwater graveyard.   

Stony coral tissue loss disease (SCTLD) was first discovered in the fall of 2014 in corals off Miami. The disease is likely spread by a bacteria, a virus or some combination of the two, but scientists are still working to identify the culprit. What they do know is that it has already expanded throughout Florida’s coast and much of the northern Caribbean. It spreads rapidly and is now present in at least 20 countries, from Mexico to Honduras to St. Lucia.

SCTLD first struck Grand Bahama at the end of 2019, and within five months, had already spread to New Providence. It has now infiltrated reef systems in the Berry Islands, Eleuthera, San Salvador, Long Island, and maybe more.

The rate of spread is simply astonishing: it can move around half an American football field a day across a reef system, or about a mile a month. That’s about the distance from Baha Mar to downtown Nassau in just three months. Within a year of being spotted on a few corals in New Providence in 2019, it had spread to almost all reef areas around the island.

Corals are colonial animals, meaning that one coral head can be composed by hundreds or thousands of individual beings. Their growth is similar to a plant, where you can remove a small piece and grow another coral elsewhere. So usually when parts of coral colony start to die, for whatever reason, if an intervention is possible and succeeds, the surviving coral can keep on growing and sometimes, living tissue can even grow over the dead areas, fully or almost fully restoring the reef.

However, if the whole reef dies, it will remain dead forever. Left untreated, studies have shown that in coral colonies infected with SCTLD, less than 2% avoid utter destruction.

The predictions for the Bahamas are dire: if nothing is done, up to 90% of certain brain corals once common on near shore reefs will die, rendering those species locally extinct. The disease is also targeting so-called ‘coral dinosaurs’, formations that took hundreds of years to form, but which are disappearing in the blink of an eye.

Before long, it is expected that local fish numbers will begin to plummet, along with sharks, sea turtles and other marine wildlife dependent on coral reefs. The fallout is also likely to accelerate erosion of our coasts, as fewer reefs mean bigger waves pummeling the shore. A low-lying country like the Bahamas will also be affected by even more flooding than we already experience, especially in the face of the stronger and more frequent hurricanes and tropical storms that come with climate change.

Eventually, seagrass beds, mangroves and other near shore habitats that are biologically interconnected with the reef systems will begin to die, while our world-renowned beaches will begin to wash away and disappear. The cataclysmic effect this will have on our tourism industry, our fisheries, our dive operations and our general way of life as island people, is incalculable. I do not exaggerate in calling this a national crisis of the highest order for the Bahamas.

Thankfully, all hope is not lost. Just as with COVID-19 vaccines, the scientific community has developed a way to slow or even stop the spread of SCTLD. Researchers found that the use of the antibiotic Amoxicillin, applied strategically to an affected reef system, along with other measures, can halt the progress of the disease and give the coral a chance to survive and recover.  

The Perry Institute for Marine Science (PIMS), a conservation NGO with an office in Nassau and staff on several Bahamian islands. It operates throughout the Caribbean and is well versed in this method. Back in 2020, PIMS approached the former government, explaining the serious and time-sensitive nature of the crisis. The Minnis administration was told that if action is not taken immediately, it could be too late.

PIMS recommended the formation of a multi-agency task force to develop and implement an action plan specific to the Bahamas. For more than two years, the scientists and divers have been waiting for the green light to begin taking action, but unfortunately, their initiative has become mired in bureaucracy and red tape. Meanwhile, the disease spreads further with each passing day. It has now gained a foothold in San Salvador, Eleuthera, Long Island, the Berry Islands and maybe others.

As the local environmental community never tires of saying, bureaucracy has no place in the fight to save our oceans, our resources and the tens of thousands of jobs that depend upon the blue economy in the Bahamas. As I write this, Florida is pumping millions of dollars into saving its reefs. Other countries in the region are taking action. Meanwhile, our politicians and civil servants continue to shuffle papers around without any end in sight. Lacking the necessary permits and approvals, the hands of the PIMS scientists are tied and have remained so for more than two years.

That doesn’t mean there is nothing the rest of us can do. Boaters, divers, fishermen and ocean-lovers can contribute to stopping the spread of SCTLD. The first way is by learning how to identify the disease and to report sightings so that PIMS can continue to monitor the spread. You can report sightings at: https://www.perryinstitute.org/contact-us.

Next, when snorkeling, spearfishing or scuba diving, it’s important to disinfect your gear after each dive to avoid accidentally spreading the disease between reefs. Dunking your gear in a bucket of seawater with sodium percarbonate (commonly found in eco-friendly laundry detergent) added works well. Also, boaters should be careful not to transport water between reefs. Be sure to pump out any bilge at reefs where SCTLD is present. Disinfect any remaining bilgewater with a natural detergent and release it into open water away from reefs.

Above all, the most important thing we can do is demand that the government take swift action in the face of this urgent crisis. A national plan for saving our reefs has already been drawn up. We must urge the decision makers to stop delaying, stop dithering, stop wasting precious time, and let the qualified environmental scientists save our reefs, our livelihoods, before it’s too late. With SCTLD, as with the COVID pandemic, politicians need to get out of the way and let the experts take charge.

It’s time to take this matter into our own hands. People of the Bahamas, I implore you to sound the alarm! Write or call your Member of Parliament, call into the radio stations and TV talk shows, start an online petition calling for immediate action to halt SCTLD. It is really now or never – whether you’re a fisherman, a tourism operator, a diver or simply one of that thousands of ocean-lovers that inhabit this beautiful, unique island nation, what you care about is under severe threat and disaster looms closer and closer with every passing minute.