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Scientists gather to combat coral reef disease

 

Bernardo Vargas-Angel, NOAA coral reef specialist, talks about parasites that attack coral reefs Wednesday, Feb. 3 at Outrigger Keauhou Beach Resort.

Bernardo Vargas-Angel, NOAA coral reef specialist, talks about parasites that attack coral reefs Wednesday, Feb. 4 at Outrigger Keauhou Beach Resort.

 

 

Karin Stanton/Hawaii247.com Contributing Editor

Disease has been wiping out coral reefs in the Caribbean and Florida Keys for more than a decade, but has only recently been the focus of research in the Indo-Pacific region.

This week, 42 scientists, researchers and reef management experts from across the Pacific are huddled at Outrigger Keauhou Beach Resort to address the growing need for a unified coral disease network.

The Pan-Pacific Coral Health and Disease Workshop is an opportunity to share existing data, discuss methods for integrating microbiology and ecology, and begin developing an outbreak response plan for coral disease. The working group also will address improving reef management plans and developing a connection between traditional Western science and Native Hawaiian science and resource management practices.

Greta Abey, assistant researcher at Hawaii Institute of Marine Biology, said studies in the Pacific are lagging 10-15 years behind the Caribbean and Florida Keys, where disease has overrun and wiped out entire colonies.

“Nobody thought there was a problem here, but nobody had looked,” she said. “We’re just now starting to be able to pick out some patterns.”

For example, she said, some diseases and syndromes have seasonal outbreaks; some don’t. Some outbreaks are very localized; some hit a coral’s ability to reproduce, while others flat out kill it.

Where the disease and health impacts come from is as varied as the coral species affected – environment, biology, geographic area and human’s are among the variables, she said.

“It’s a little scary, especially with climate change bearing down on us,” Abey said. “Water temperatures are creeping up. That’s a fact now. And corals don’t do well in warmer temperatures.”

Scientists hope to eventually be able to forecast outbreaks of coral diseases, syndromes and infestations, although prevention and treatment still are in their infancy.

“There’s a lot work to be done,” said Thierry Work, a veterinary pathologist with the U.S. Geological Survey. “Basically, we’re in the 1800s on coral diseases.”

For example, Work said, wildlife area managers can hand over a dead nene or turtle and he can quickly diagnose – and also recommend prevention or treatment -based on 150 years of scientific and medical knowledge is at his disposal.

Science also needs to catch up in how and even if coral heals itself. “This is very basic information that needs to be there,” he said, before treatment and prevention methods can be developed.

Bernardo Vargas-Angel, NOAA Pacific Islands Fisheries Science Center coral disease specialist, spends 5-6 months of each year visiting reef survey sites within a Pacific triangle roughly bordered by the Mariana archipelago Hawaiian archipelago and American Samoa.

He figures he has completed baseline assessments at approximately 550 sites, including more than 70 around the Hawaii islands, and has identified 10 or 11 categories of coral health threats, ranging from bleaching to fungal infections to growth anomalies.

“Right now there is a relatively low prevalence with a few hot spots, specifically Guam,” he said. “The levels are quite variable across the region. We’re doing more damage at a far greater rate then we can do good.

“There are lots of things we can do on land the immediately impact the ocean. The human and nature interaction always has impacts,” he said. “It gives us a lot of responsibility.”

Hawaii residents, visitors and policy-makers on the state, national and international levels are all part of the solution, Vargas-Angel said. Because caring for the ocean and reefs is part of Hawaii’s culture, he said, the fate of the state’s reefs may not be the same as in Florida.

“Part of it is public awareness and education and then that can lead to the political will to change things,” he said. “Right now we’re doing more damage at a far greater rate then we can do good. We’re moving in the right direction, but it’s a process.”

The workshop continues through Friday, Feb. 6 and includes breakout group discussions, presentations, field work and a dive trip. It is hosted by the GEF/World Bank’s Coral Disease Working Group and The Kohala Center.

— Find out more:
World Bank’s Coral Reef Disease Working Group: www.gefcoral.org
Pacific Islands Fisheries Science Center Coral Reef Ecosystem Division: www.pifsc.noaa.gov/cred
Hawaii Institute of Marine Biology: www.hawaii.edu/HIMB/

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