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An antibiotic for the reef: how Belize’s Barrier Reef is being treated against the spread of stony coral tissue loss disease (Part one of two)

Posted: Monday, September 11, 2023. 3:40 pm CST.

Part 1: Challenge for the Blue Economy

By Aaron Humes: In 2019, scientists detected small white lesions on coral species in Belize, indicating stony coral tissue loss disease (SCTLD) had arrived in the country’s waters. Today, SCTLD has spread to coral reefs in all of the country’s six marine subregions, yet the cause of this bacterial-based disease remains unknown.

Belize is betting big on being able to save the corals to preserve the linchpin of Belize’s Blue Economy – the Barrier Reef Reserve System, which serves as an incubator, protector, attraction, and provider all at once.

From a scientific perspective, Nicole Craig, marine biologist and most recently Belize Coordinator for the Healthy People for Healthy Reefs Initiative (HRI) explains, “The 20 species that are affected by the disease are some of our major reef-building corals which help to give the reef structure. This structure is where fish live, and also what gives us shoreline protection. Without living coral, this is compromised.”

There are economic benefits to keeping the reef around as well, according to Virginia Perez, Science Director at the Turneffe Atoll Sustainability Association (TASA), the co-manager of the Turneffe Atoll Marine Reserve to the east of the coastline. “By ensuring that we have healthy reefs, we are taking care of an ecosystem, and an ecosystem that provides services such as food.” As part of the country’s vaunted tourism program, she added, we pride ourselves on providing the sight of a healthy, thriving Barrier Reef from dive sites to marine reserves to natural monuments.

Technical supervisor and science director at the Hol Chan Marine Reserve (HCMR) in northern Belize, Emilie Gomez, told us: “The abundance and diversity of marine species and corals found within the boundaries of HCMR, coupled with the Reserve’s strategic location, surrounding the populated islands of Ambergris Caye and Caye Caulker, have contributed significantly to the livelihoods of most residents whose socio-economic well-being is tied to tourism and/or fisheries. All of these areas are threatened by the potential significant loss in coral cover if left unchecked.

SCTLD was first observed in 2014 off the Florida coast. It is characterized by a small lesion (a white area on the coral) where the tissue has died, leaving only the skeleton. Left untreated, the lesion expands outward until the entire colony dies, which can take anywhere from a few weeks to a few months. To date, there is no link to disease in either humans or organisms on the reef.

This story was produced with support from Internews’ Earth Journalism Network.


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