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Mystery disease killing Florida's only coral reef

Off the coast of Southeast Florida, a mysterious new disease is killing coral reefs, turning them white and leaving nothing but a skeleton behind.

More than half of the state’s 330-year-old Coral Reef Tract, which stretches across 175 miles in the Florida Keys, is infected with the disease. It’s called “white syndrome” by scientists because white stripes or spots cover the coral, and it was discovered in fall 2014.

Throughout 2017, the disease spread to a point where half the coral at some sites were affected, even some that had been considered the most resilient and important for reef building, according to a newsletter by the Southeast Florida Coral Reef Initiative, which helps raise awareness about Florida’s reefs.

The causes of the disease are still unknown, though researchers believe it may be due to a combination of factors, including water quality, said Ana Zangroniz, a Miami-Dade-based University of Florida Florida Sea Grant agent.

Coral reefs are important hotspots for many fish, producing almost one-third of the world’s marine fish species, despite covering only 1 percent of the ocean floor. Invertebrates such as jellyfish, lobster and crabs, fish, and sea turtles all rely on coral reefs for food, shelter or both, Zangroniz said.