A diver with Ocean Eyes productions, a crewed yacht, applies treatment to a piece of coral at the wreck of The Rhone. (Photo: PROVIDED)

With the fast-spreading and highly lethal stony coral tissue loss disease recently reaching Virgin Islands reefs, government, non-profit organisations and businesses have begun meeting weekly to track the disease’s progress and formulate a plan for fighting back, said Dr. Shannon Gore, managing director of the Association of Reef Keepers.

The various stakeholders met for the first time on June 17, a week after Natural Resources, Labour and Immigration Minister Vincent Wheatley detailed the potential coral crisis in the House of Assembly and called for the establishment of a “strike-team” to blunt its impact.

“The ministry has local trained personnel with experience in identifying the disease and can train others in doing so. We know it will be a costly ongoing venture, but it is one we cannot allow to go untouched,” Mr. Wheatley said during the June 11 HOA meeting, adding,

“We must work with great haste to recover our coral reefs.”

US strategy

By replicating the strategy employed for years by officials in the United States, where the outbreak began off the coast of the Florida Keys in 2014, Dr. Gore hopes that the partners can eventually carve out a unified response to keep the disease at bay, she said.

With government taking the lead on a project that ARK and other organisations in the VI have long been planning, and with so many disparate parties now involved — the June 17 meeting was attended by Commercial Dive Services owner Chris Juredin, National Parks Trust Director Dr. Cassander Titley O’Neal, and MNRLI Permanent Secretary Joseph Smith-Abbott, among others— the group’s most immediate goal is to get everyone on the same page and start to nail down the specifics of how to proceed, Dr. Gore said.

“Instead of trying to reinvent the wheel, it’s just looking at what everybody else is doing and taking their best practices so that we’re not making the same mistakes that they’ve been making,” she explained.

Citizen science

In his June 11 statement in the HOA, Mr. Wheatley, who was not available for two interviews scheduled by the Beacon, proposed a citizen science programme as a means of keeping tabs on the disease’s movement through the VI, outlining a possible system of residents photographing tagged corals and sending these pictures to a “central point.”

Though the stakeholders did not directly broach the topic of such a programme at the June 17 meeting, Dr. Gore said that it might be a while before scientists in the VI are able to tag corals in the manner Mr. Wheatley envisioned, which involves scientists nailing tags bearing a number and email address into treated corals.

For now, Dr. Gore plans to continue encouraging dive operators and residents to learn how to identify sickened reefs and send her any photographs of potentially infected corals so she can assess whether or not the specimen needs to be treated, she said.

Learning curve

But because there are so many conditions that cause symptoms indicative of SCTLD, learning to spot the disease is no easy task, said Mr. Juredin, who, along with several CDS crew members, has joined Dr. Gore for an instructional field day.

“She showed some of us what to look for, but I think it would be premature for us or any dive operator to actually know what we’re looking at,” Mr. Juredin said.

Since the treatment for SCTLD — amoxicillin mixed with a special paste — is expensive, Dr. Gore has taken to selling disease identification kits to help cover the cost.

Government did not discuss allocating any funding for the response team during the June 17 meeting, but Dr. Titley O’Neal, using NPT funds, has recently purchased some of the treatment from a US facility, she said.

Mr. Juredin also thinks that tighter regulations restricting how ships discharge sewage will benefit the overall health of VI corals, which face a host of ailments besides SCTLD, including bleaching, a phenomenon where corals expel their algae and turn white when the water becomes too warm, making the coral more susceptible to various forms of infection.

Community effort

But the government, non-profits and business leaders alone cannot protect VI coral from this bacterial disease, Dr. Gore said.

“If there’s a bunch of groups working independently, it’s not gonna be as effective,” Dr. Gore said.

Crewed yachts and dive operators will be essential monitors of the disease’s progression throughout the territory, as they are the ones who most often traverse VI waters, Dr. Gore said. “They’re out more often than anybody else, and they’re such a great resource,” she added.

She also pointed to Bamboushay’s fundraising effort, a Friday night darts competition, as a prime example of the community involvement necessary to safeguard coral vitality, and as proof that many residents are concerned about the disease and motivated to fight against it.

“After the hurricanes [of 2017] … everybody helped everybody, and it’s that kind of situation again,” Dr. Gore said.

Although the VI has fewer resources for studying the disease than the US, Mr. Juredin is confident that over time the territory’s marine biologists will gain a fuller picture of the disease’s impacts locally, and in turn sharpen their strategy for containment, he said.

“We have an opportunity to do something,” he said. “Maybe we can’t stop it in its tracks, but at the least we can find a way to mitigate it.”