As recent as 40 years ago there was almost no available information or data on coral diseases. That all change in the 1970’s when an outbreak of white plaque disease decimated many Caribbean reefs, and opened up scientists to the realization that coral diseases are becoming more widespread and pronounced around the globe. Since that time, more than 30 new coral diseases have been identified, although there is still very little knowledge about many of the causes, transmission, or tenacity of the diseases being identified.
We at the New Heaven Reef Conservation Program frequently survey the reefs for coral diseases so that we can better understand the dynamics of these potentially catastrophic ailments. We have also worked with researchers like Christian Voolstra of KAUST University, and Bette Willis of James Cook University to increase the local and global understanding of diseases dynamics.
There are some things that scientists do know for sure, coral diseases act much like human diseases. Think about those times where you might expect that you would get sick...you'd probably be under stress, exposed to unclean conditions, or exposed to others who are sick. The same factors would similarly put corals at risk.
As corals become more stressed by changes in global ocean temperatures and chemistry, introduction of excess nutrients and novel chemicals, or changes in the balance of organisms on the reefs, diseases become more active and deadly. Waste water run-off, fertilizers, deforestation, and other land based activities can make waters ‘unclean’ allowing bacteria or other harmful microbes to flourish, increasing the incidences of coral diseases. And lastly, a reduction in reef diversity leading to species uniformity on reefs means that outbreaks happen more often and are more widespread.
Students in our program learn about the biology and dynamics of coral diseases, as well as how to accurately identify and assess coral disease prevalence on the reef. Qualified students who complete all of the theory and at least two coral disease assessment dives are eligible to receive the Coral Diseases Monitoring and Assessment Recognition card under Conservation Diver.