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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 two of two)

Posted: Monday, September 11, 2023. 3:48 pm CST.

Part 2: ‘Missteps and blind alleys’ – then, a solution?

By Aaron Humes: To combat SCTLD, an affliction that threatens to turn the second largest barrier reef in the Atlantic Ocean and international attraction into skin and bones, Belize’s environmental community needed to act quickly. But there were early missteps and blind alleys according to Nicole Craig: “The National Coral Reef Monitoring Network tried many things like cement, cocoa butter, epoxy, clay…. all by placing these materials over the lesion in an attempt to stop the lesion spread. None of it worked,” she said.

A 2020 paper by Karen Neely and others found that while it is not possible to treat every single coral that is infected, a targeted treatment could minimize the establishment of the pathogen that causes the disease within the coral system. That treatment is amoxicillin, a member of the penicillin family used to treat bacterial infections in humans including strep throat and pneumonia.

American company Ocean Alchemists had created a placebo into which the powdered amoxicillin could be mixed, then fed by syringe directly into the affected coral. By the time the first treatments were made in 2022, the disease had already been ravaging coral reefs from north to south for several years. COVID-19-related government-issued restrictions and repeated lockdowns kept environmentalists away from the sea and their monitoring of the progress of the disease as it was not considered essential.

Nonetheless, in keeping with Craig’s mantra that “The sooner the better” to start treatment, the treatments and studies of SCTLD’s effects continue, and there are some successes to report.

HRI’s own internal study where a small group of corals was treated and monitored for a three-month period found that “over 70 percent of the colonies responded positively to the treatment and the lesions did not continue to spread at the end of our three-month survey.”
At HCMR, treatment began in April of 2019 before the pandemic hit, using a limited supply of six jars of CoralCure and amoxicillin for one month’s treatment. Says Gomez, “Even with only a very small number of corals treated, the results of treatment showed that it does work and can be effective to control infection at newly infected sites.” Based on those results, continued monitoring and treatment overseen by the Monitoring Network began two months later.

Cost is a prohibitive factor to continued treatment, and at Hol Chan especially alternative responses such as restoration of acroporid corals, which are endangered but according to Gomez are “fast-growing, reef-building, branching, and keystone (foundation) species” that can quickly replace damaged corals. Also, in situ nurseries are being created to look further at the spread and control of SCTLD with HCMR receiving support from NGO Fragments of Hope. But for now, amoxicillin remains the primary hope and studies continue at other sites in Belize such as Glovers Reef and South Water Caye Marine Reserve off Placencia in the Stann Creek District. These, estimates Craig, will take another year to complete.

As Gomez also notes, Belize is a signatory to the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) and Aichi Biodiversity Targets of the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), which include among others Target 14.2 of the SDGs, “strengthening the resilience of coral reef systems and taking action for their restoration to achieve healthy and productive systems, as well as increasing resilience to climate change and improving livelihoods.”

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


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