Divers could spread deadly coral disease

Stony Coral Tissue Loss Disease in the Cayman Islands (Photo courtesy of DoE)

(CNS): Until recently, the deadly stony coral tissue loss disease progressed evenly, but with reports of it appearing in random, unconnected sites, the Department of the Environment now fears that the Divers and boat operators do not unintentionally spread the disease. This latest deadly coral disease was first spotted in Cayman waters last June at Penny’s Arch in Rum Point. It has since progressed steadily west around North West Point and east along the North Rim, despite the DoE’s efforts to stop the spread. Even more worrying are the recent random epidemics around the south coast.

Since these outbreaks have appeared at random dive sites as far away as the northeast and southeast coasts, DoE officials believe they could be spread by divers and boats. With an outbreak at the remote Anchor Reef dive site in the southwest, responding to stop the spread of the highly infectious disease has become even more difficult.

Speaking at a special meeting recently hosted by DoE and tourism stakeholders at last week’s CITA meeting, DoE deputy director Tim Austin said the discovery of diseases at sites Diving unrelated to the original infection line has led the department to the “real horrible idea” that it is likely to be “related to diving practices”.

Even with the marked reduction in diving since the border was closed, local divers’ equipment and boats appear to be contaminated and are displacing disease, Austin warned. When the disease was first reported near Rum Point, around 10% of the hard corals had died, 35% of which appeared to be in poor health. As of April of this year, 57% of the site’s corals had died and the disease was still progressing.

Some hard corals, such as elk and deer, appear to be immune to SCTLD, but this directly impacts around two dozen species. Austin urged operators to disinfect their kits and boats to help control the spread, which he said the DoE was combating through various measures, such as applying an antibiotic formula directly to the coral and the use of firebreaks. Given the many threats to the coral, including climate change and many other diseases, Austin underscored the concern this rapidly spreading and debilitating threat is now causing.

So far, the reefs around Cayman Brac and Little Cayman have shown no signs of infection, and under new DoE guidelines, divers taking their own gear from Grand Cayman must have it thoroughly disinfected. Grand Cayman divers and operators are also discouraged from making multi-site trips between infected and uninfected areas.

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