We also told you about Stony Coral Tissue Loss Disease in 2019. And since then, the news is not encouraging. Despite best strategies - no one can quite figure out how to stop its advance.

And it only got worse during COVID when there really wasn't anyone to look for it as the COVID-19 measures kept conservation organizations, fishers and tour guides out of the waters. Since then it has been documented from Placencia to the northern tips of Belize's coastal waters. Freelance journalist Jose Sanchez collaborated with the Earth Journalism Network, PGTV and Hipolito Novelo to bring you this story about Stony Coral Tissue Loss Disease and its impact across Belize. Sanchez reports from the Silk Cayes to the Blue Hole in this following report.

The most deadly coral disease outbreak in history is a lesion that develops and causes tissue loss across the surface of coral colonies until no living tissue remains. It is called stony coral tissue loss disease. In the 2022 Mesoamerican Reef Report Card, Belize's score dropped from three in 2020 to two, indicating a state of poor reef health.Belize's Country Coordinator for Healthy Reef Initiative, Nicole Craig says the decline is due to reduction of both commercial and herbivorous fish biomass and the disease.

Nicole Craig, Country Coordinator, Healthy Reefs Initiative
"Interestingly enough, coral cover increased by 1%.But when you break that down and look at the species composition, the different types of corals that make up that increase, we actually see a change in the types of corals that are now dominating our reefs. Stony coral tissue loss disease, we believe, has a lot to do with this because of the species that it affects. It starts as a small lesion, a little white spot that's appearing on the coral colony itself. And that little white spot, or lesion, just keeps getting bigger and bigger and bigger. And so what we were doing initially was putting all these different materials around or surrounding that lesion to see if it would continue to spread, and it did. The species that we typically see stony coral tissue loss disease affecting are actually the larger reef building corals, the ones that really contribute to shoreline protection. These are the big boulders, the brains, and we don't see as many of those on our reef anymore. We're seeing a lot more of the smaller, thinner, like lettuce coral on our reef instead."

In southern Belize, amongst the silk keys fragments of founder Lisa Carne indicated the crisis was first recognized in the USA.

Lisa Carne, Founder Fragments of Hope
"A bunch of people panicking because it is such a deadly disease and it affects over 25 different stony coral species, the ones that actually build the reef. And so there was a lot of scrambling with a lot of folks in Florida and other parts of the Caribbean that have more resources than Belize and other island nations may have, and they looked at lots of different treatments. But let me explain the problem with this is we don't know what's causing the disease. So even with something like COVID, you understand the terminology where they identify the pathogen, and they were able to identify the COVID pathogens a virus that kept mutating while we had to keep getting different vaccines. But in the case of almost all of the coral diseases, we don't know the pathogen. So if we don't even know if it's bacterial or if it's virus or what, it's kind of a guessing game, right?"

Commercial vessels may contribute to the spread from their ballast water. Ballast water is seawater held in tanks and holds of ships to manage drift, trim and stability. Ballast water is then taken up in ports or while in transit. Microbes, including bacteria and viruses, are carried in balast water, which may be taken up and co-mingle across a variety of locations, including the Caribbean.

Jose Sanchez
"Stony coral tissue loss disease has not only affected areas in the south off the coast of Placencia, it has also reached the Light House Reef Atoll, which is, of course, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The Belize Blue Hole."

The blue hole is within the Lighthouse Reef Atoll and Belize Audubon society's Marine biologist Gabriella Ugarte says the organization has documented the disease within the atoll.

Gabriela Ugarte, Marine Biologist, Belize Audubon Society
"In September of 2020, when other surveys were being conducted at Lighthouse Reef Atoll, the team saw what they thought were signs of stony coral tissue loss disease. And so images were taken and those were sent in for confirmation. We conducted rover diverse surveys in which we predetermined twelve sites, and within those twelve sites, approximately 4000 coral colonies were assessed. Of that 4000, approximately 16% showed signs of Stony Coral Tissue Loss Disease, and then 11% of those showed 100% mortality due to the disease."

Members of the Coral Reef Monitoring Network, Ninon Martinez of UB-ERI and Nicole Craig of Healthy Reefs discussed the issue.

Ninon Martinez, UB-ERI
"So what happened with Stony Coral Tissue Loss Disease? Even though we were trying to plan and prepare, you really can't plan and prepare for something you don't know that's going to happen. This really came out of nowhere, just like COVID-19, and it's like we don't really know what we're doing, but we're going to try to do our best. We only got out about four times in the whole year. Now, Stony Coral Tissue Loss Disease, as you (Nicole Craig) know from your study that you at Goff's Caye, it can kill a coral in four to six weeks. So if we're going out four times a year, that's probably three months. Whatever we treated, it could have been dead already and we didn't even know."

Nicole Craig
"Before the disease got to Belize, we met as a network, the network's called the National Coral Reef Monitoring Network. And we talked about our options. We talked about what it is that we can do, how much money do we have, how many people do we have? And we decided that we would try a couple of things that were a bit cheaper first. So things like cement, epoxy, even cocoa butter. We tried to put on these corals to see if the lesions would continue to spread, but unfortunately they did. And so we realized we might need something a bit stronger. The antibiotic itself comes in powdered form, and so we needed something to help the antibiotic stick to the coral itself. And so there's this company who creates this compound called CoreRX Base 2B, and they are in the US. It's a very expensive product, actually, and so we had to apply for funding to help us source it. But we were able to do that and get some of that here in Belize. So once we got the product, we could mixing that powdered antibiotic and then apply it directly any lesion we saw on colonies."

Lisa Carne
"There's no way we could treat every sick coral. And so it certainly is depressing. And it does feel like an uphill battle when you go out there. And my opinion, it hasn't completely changed. But my thought is that at the end of the day, there will be survivors. And while it's a very sad situation, given the fact that we can't treat them all and we don't know the pathogen, I think we need to focus our future efforts on identifying the survivors of this disease and then working on how we can propagate more of those. But on the other hand, when you see some of these big, hundreds of years old, big, beautiful brain corals, you want to save them, right?"

Through the Earth Journalism Network we will also share a news story on how conservation organizations use innovative techniques in their daily work.

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