July 11, 2018

STEVE GITTINGS/NOAA
A brain coral at Alligator Reef off Islamorada shows signs of a disease that threatens about half the coral species on the Florida Reef Tract. Experts convene in Key Largo this week to review options. 

STEVE GITTINGS/NOAA A brain coral at Alligator Reef off Islamorada shows signs of a disease that threatens about half the coral species on the Florida Reef Tract. Experts convene in Key Largo this week to review options. 

KEY LARGO — More than 40 coral reef specialists are expected in Key Largo this week, but not for the diving.

The multi-agency group aims to spend three days sharing information about the ongoing “white plague” coral disease that threatens half of the coral species on the Florida Keys reef.

“It’s bringing together folks doing experiments, both in the field and the laboratory, with an emphasis on understanding what caused the disease, the factors responsible for its spread, and what we can do about it,” said Andy Bruckner, a coral specialist now working as research coordinator for the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary.

The disease, first identified off Miami in 2014, generally attacks large boulder corals that form the basis of the 360-mile-long Florida Reef Tract.

“We’re focusing on some of the highest priority corals that are really, really important to building productive reef structure,” Bruckner said. “Large corals are important. The bigger they get, the more they contribute to providing more offspring for future generations.

“There are a lot of challenges trying to treat diseased coral in the field, which means in the water. You have to be really careful. You can’t just dump chlorine or antiseptics in the water because of the impacts on all the other organisms.”

Treatment techniques being tested include mixing chlorine with epoxy, then applying the paste to the discernible edge of the infection so it sticks on a coral head. 

“In some cases, it’s been pretty effective,” Bruckner said.

How the disease originated remains a mystery. It could be a reaction to water conditions or a changing climate that caused an imbalance in the natural mix of bacteria that live with corals. 

“Maybe when the water gets too hot, the ‘bad’ bacteria outcompetes the ‘good’ bacteria and becomes dominant, triggering an outbreak,” Bruckner said.

The current threat to corals “is severe and it has spread quite a bit,” he said, “but it’s important to remember that we’re not losing everything. Certain corals don’t get the disease at all.”

Some of the larger boulder corals that have been affected have shown signs of natural recovery. 

“Corals are animals. Sometimes they get sick, then survive and start to repopulate,” Bruckner said.

Boulder corals “smaller than a basketball” are more susceptible to a complete collapse, he said.

Pioneering coral-nursery efforts by Florida Keys experts with the Coral Restoration Foundation and Mote Marine Laboratory give researchers hope for rebuilding other coral species, Bruckner said.

U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., in February began urging federal agencies to take more action to save the state’s living reef that attracts “over 16 million visitors each year [and] estimated to bring in over $6 billion of revenues to the state.”

“I’m glad interagency meetings are getting underway, but what folks in the community want to know is what action plan exists to combat the mysterious coral disease,” Nelson said in a Friday email.

In addition to the host marine sanctuary, several marine agencies within the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration will take part in the three-day workshop, along with the National Park Service.

The Florida Department of Environmental Protection, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission and its research arm will take part.

Others on the invitation list include staff with Keys Marine Lab, Mote Marine, The National Conservancy, the Florida Aquarium and several universities.

The workshop at the Key Largo Holiday Inn is not open to the public. 

“It will be highly technical,” said a sanctuary spokeswoman. 

kwadlow@keysnews.com