Stony Coral Tissue Loss Disease is impacting hard coral species and damaging entire reefs in Dry Tortugas National Park. The park’s Coral Response Team observed it on May 29th, 2021 while conducting a routine disease survey.

Dry Tortugas National Park was the only remaining section of Florida’s Coral Reef to not show signs of the disease. Pedro Ramos, superintendent of Everglades and Dry Tortugas national parks commented. “Finding it early is significant because, without treatment, the disease has the potential to destroy the park’s underwater gardens, as affected corals have a nearly 100% mortality rate.”  

An NPS Coral Response Team member is using the best available method of treatment by applying an antibiotic paste (combination of amoxicillin and Base2b) to the lesion margins on a Dichocoenia stokesii (Elliptical Star Coral) colony.
An NPS Coral Response Team member is using the best available method of treatment by applying an antibiotic paste (combination of amoxicillin and Base2b) to the lesion margins on a Dichocoenia stokesii (Elliptical Star Coral) colony.NPS Photo by Rachel Johns

What is Stony Coral Tissue Loss Disease?

First identified in 2014 near Miami, the disease appears as white patches. Indicating where the disease has consumed the live coral tissue. This exposes the bright white coral skeleton and removing the brilliant colors that the reefs are known for. Now found throughout Florida’s Coral Reef and the Caribbean, the disease outbreak is unprecedented in its broad geographic range. While the cause of the disease is yet unknown, bacteria likely plays a role, since antibiotic treatments have proven effective. 

Dry Tortugas National Park Response

Following an established response plan, the team immediately applied the most effective treatment available. This is an antibiotic paste, to the infected corals. Currently, the disease is in one area of the park near the southeastern boundary of the park. This area is approximately 2.5 miles east of Garden Key, where Fort Jefferson is located. In anticipation of Stony Coral Tissue Loss Disease reaching the Dry Tortugas corals, the park regularly monitors 40 sites. since September 2020. The parks Coral Response Team of six biologists focuses exclusively on coral monitoring and disease response.

The team treats corals infected with Stony Coral Tissue Loss Disease. The application of Amoxycillin has shown to slow the spread of the disease and increase coral survival. The team will focus their treatment efforts on high-priority corals including threatened species, large reproductively active corals, and those in areas with high coral cover and biodiversity. 

Did Dry Tortugas National Park Prepare

Over the past two years, the park and park partners have also taken preventative measures. Collecting healthy corals as part of the multi-agency Coral Rescue Project. The park’s rescued corals were placed in land-based aquaria to prevent them from becoming infected. This preserves genetic diversity and serves as breeding stock for future restoration activities.

What ca visitors do to help?

Everyone can still do their part to save this important ecosystem. Corals are resilient when given the chance. All of us can help our corals when recreating on or around the water: 

  1. Wear reef-safe sunscreen or protective clothing in the water. 
  2. Dispose of trash properly to reduce marine debris. 
  3. Avoid touching, standing on, or kicking corals, especially when snorkeling or diving. 
  4. Follow local fishing, diving, and anchoring rules. 
  5. Follow clean boating principles
  6. Decontaminate dive and snorkel gear

Why is Coral Important?

Healthy coral reefs are among the most biologically diverse, culturally significant, and economically valuable ecosystems on Earth. Coral reefs safeguard against extreme weather, shoreline erosion, and coastal flooding.

Located 70 miles west of Key West, Dry Tortugas National Park attracts visitors for both its cultural and natural features, including the colorful corals and the abundant marine life that depend on the reef. Snorkelers and divers may enjoy the underwater scenery, but all visitors are able to view some of the corals and tropical fish from the moat wall that surrounds the iconic Fort Jefferson. 

Read about another of our great U.S. National Parks Here

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