Puerto Rico has announced a state of emergency as the country’s corals are losing tissue and dying at a significant rate due to a mysterious and highly contagious disease sweeping through the Caribbean sea.
Puerto Rico has declared an ecological state of emergency in response to the growing crisis over the country’s coral reefs, and will be taking necessary measures to prevent coral loss to disease.
A highly contagious and lethal disease has been spreading across the coral reef systems in the coast of Puerto Rico and throughout the Caribbean sea, causing corals to lose tissue with only its exoskeleton remaining in its wake.
The mysterious new threat currently affects some 20 species of hard coral, with mortality rate estimated between a worrying 66%-100%, according to the Reef Resilience Network. Described as the “coral COVID”, the stony coral tissue loss disease has baffled scientists but what they do know is how it spreads among coral colonies by water circulation, causing irreversible damage to the coral ecosystems.
Coral reefs are some of the most important ecosystems on the planet. They support a rich, valuable habitat for marine plants and animals by providing nutrients for marine food chains.
They are important carbon sinks in mitigating greenhouse gas emissions, and their structures act as coastal defense from severe storms and slow down the impact of waves. With other significant threats like coral bleaching due to warming ocean temperatures and ocean acidification, it could take hundreds of years for the coral colonies in the Puerto Rico coasts to recover and regrow.
Coral loss at this scale represents a direct threat not only to the country’s environment and marine ecosystems, but it hugely impacts the local economy as well. Millions of people in the coastal communities are employed through industries that depend on the reefs, including fishery and tourism, which is estimated to generate about 4% of Puerto Rico’s GDP – approximately two billion dollars a year.
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To combat this, the Governor of Puerto Rico Pedro Pierluisi Urrutia declared an ecological emergency on August 30 and instructed the Department of Natural and Environmental Resources (DNER) to take any necessary measures with allocated emergency funds to stem the spread of the disease.
“We have to put this situation in the context of the natural disasters we have had, the economic crisis and the pandemic,” said the governor in a press conference. “All of this has prevented an adequate response to mitigate the rapidly spreading stony coral tissue loss disease. It should be noted that corals are essential to our marine life and guarantee an ecosystem for fish and other species that support our food security.”
No details have been released on what measures will be taken to fight against the coral disease. The only treatment known so far is a highly labour intensive effort to apply antibacterial ointment on the affected coral.
However, the coral crisis has highlighted the urgency for environmental conservation. Under the state of emergency, the governor has announced an agreement for the conservation of the ecosystems of the island’s coast and allocated another million in federal funds for the DNER to plant more and to have stronger maintenance of trees.