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Ships could fuel a coral-killing epidemic

Ships could fuel a coral-killing epidemic

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From the University of Miami Rosenstiel School of Marine, Atmospheric and Earth Science, January 6, 2023

Deadly Coral Disease

Coral colonies of the species Colpophyllia natans and Orbicella faveolata maintained in the Experimental Reef Laboratory’s aquarium systems. These corals were rescued from a seawall collapse on Star Island in July 2022 and are being used to support research and restoration efforts. Photo credit: Joshua Prezant

These new findings can provide a basis for developing strategies to prevent the further spread of the disease.

According to a recent study by scientists at the University of Miami’s Rosenstiel School of Marine, Atmospheric and Earth Science, ships could be contributing to the spread of a deadly coral disease called stony coral tissue loss disease (SCTLD) throughout Florida and the Caribbean.

The disease, first discovered near Miami in 2014, has now afflicted coral reefs in Jamaica, St. Maarten, the US Virgin Islands and Belize, among others. Findings from this study may help researchers design tests and treatments that may reduce the risk of further disease transmission.

Researchers suspect that hull transport, where the ship picks up ballast water in one region to keep it stable and releases it in another port, may have contributed to the spread of the disease.

“Outbreaks in very distant locations suggest that disease transport was aided by means other than just ocean currents, such as ship ballast water,” said study lead author Michael Studivan, an assistant scientist at the UM Cooperative Institute for Marine and Atmospheric Studies ( CIMAS) and NOAA’s Atlantic Oceanographic and Meteorological Laboratory.

Researchers at the UM Rosenstiel School conducted two disease transmission experiments using simulated ship ballast water and UV treatment of ballast water at the Rosenstiel School’s Experimental Reef Lab to determine whether SCTLD pathogens can be transported in this manner and whether established ballast water treatment approaches such as UV can reduce the spread of successfully prevent diseases.

In the first experiment, healthy corals were exposed to three types of water: 1) disease-exposed, 2) disease-exposed and UV-treated, and 3) non-disease-exposed water in a flow-through tank system. Over a six-week period, they monitored disease lesion incidence and mortality to determine the number of diseased corals, how quickly, and whether UV treatment of diseased water resulted in fewer affected corals. In a second experiment, the researchers held the same types of water in containers to simulate a ship’s ballast tank for one and five days, and then exposed the water to healthy corals to see if the SCTLD pathogens survived over time could and whether they became more or less contagious over time.

Researchers then tested the ballast water generated for both experiments in collaboration with the US Naval Research Laboratory in Key West to quantify the microbial communities and their abundance in untreated and treated ballast water.

“The results suggest that ship ballast water poses a threat to the further spread and persistence of SCTLD throughout the Caribbean and potentially to reefs in the Pacific, and that established treatment and testing standards may not mitigate the risk of spreading the disease.” said Studivan.

The Experimental Reef Lab was designed and built by NOAA’s Atlantic Oceanographic and Meteorological Laboratory (AOML) and CIMAS at the Rosenstiel School to study coral response to changing environmental conditions.

Reference: “Transmission of Stony Coral Tissue Loss Disease (SCTLD) in Simulated Ballast Water Confirms Potential for Shipborne Spread” by Michael S. Studivan, Michelle Baptist, Vanessa Molina, Scott Riley, Matthew First, Nash Soderberg, Ewelina Rubin, Ashley Rossin, Daniel M. Holstein and Ian C. Enochs, November 10, 2022, Scientific Reports.
DOI: 10.1038/s41598-022-21868-z

The study was funded by the Environmental Protection Agency, the NOAA Coral Reef Conservation Program, the NOAA OAR ‘Omics Program, the Louisiana Board of Regents Research Support Fund Research Competitiveness Subprogram, and the National Science Foundation Ecology and Evolution of Infectious Disease.

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