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Wednesday, December 11, 2019
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We are the cause of the disease on the reef

It is a wonderful thing when you are faced with a very difficult problem and you find out that you can fix it, just by fixing yourself. The doctor said that all you have to do is get off your stool and do a little exercise. The money manager said all you have to do is fix the leaks in your water system and stop burning lights all night, and you will have sufficient savings to help pay the bank loan for your investment in a new project.

By now we’ve all seen the terrifying reports about the disease that is affecting coral in a way scientists say they’ve never seen. Cassie Martin, in the story “A mysterious coral disease is ravaging Caribbean reefs”, in the magazine, Science News, says the disease is “moving faster and killing more corals than any disease before.”

Martin says scientists are not sure what is causing the disease, but the prime suspect is stony coral tissue loss disease, which was discovered off Florida in 2014.

Martin writes: “In the Caribbean, the disease is now ravaging about a third of the region’s 65 reef-building species, scientists estimate. Yet researchers aren’t even sure if the disease is viral, bacterial or some other microbial mix.”

Whatever the cause, “it’s annihilating whole species,” says coral ecologist Marilyn Brandt, who is leading a science team trying to tackle the outbreak from multiple research angles.

“Past outbreaks of other coral diseases near St. Thomas have cut coral cover by up to 50 percent over a year, says Brandt, of the University of the Virgin Islands. But this new disease has done the same amount of damage in half that time — spreading faster and killing more corals than any past outbreaks in the area. It marches along the reef and rarely leaves corals behind,” Brandt says, “We’re pretty scared.”

Scientists have found some success by treating wounded corals with a disinfectant/antibiotic paste, but the report says “the medicine doesn’t stop new lesions from popping up.” The response to the antibiotic treatment leads scientists to believe that the primary disease-causing agent is bacteria.

A map Martin reproduced shows that three of the areas that have been worst hit by the disease are off the coast of Florida, off the east coast of Mexico (Yucatan), and Jamaica. These areas have in common that they are densely populated land masses and are high tourism areas.

Martin says that the “race to learn more about stony coral tissue loss disease and other infections is becoming urgent as climate change warms ocean waters. Global warming is like a one-two punch for coral disease: Heat stress and bleaching may weaken coral defenses, while warming waters send pathogens into overdrive. Pollution, overfishing and other environmental factors can also stress corals, giving pathogens an in.”

A July 15, 2019 story out of Florida Atlantic University, “Thirty years of unique data reveal what’s really killing coral reefs”, pins the blame on a warming planet, AND “a planet that is simultaneously being enriched with reactive nitrogen from sources like improperly treated sewage, and fertilizers.”

The story says that “improperly treated sewage, fertilizers and top soil are elevating nitrogen levels, which are causing phosphorus starvation in the corals, reducing their temperature threshold for ‘bleaching.’ These coral reefs were dying off long before they were impacted by rising water temperatures.”

One of the study’s authors, James W. Porter, Ph.D., emeritus professor of ecology at the University of Georgia, wrote: “Citing climate change as the exclusive cause of coral reef demise worldwide misses the critical point that water quality plays a role, too. While there is little that communities living near coral reefs can do to stop global warming, there is a lot they can do to reduce nitrogen runoff. Our study shows that the fight to preserve coral reefs requires local, not just global, action.”

So, Belize, what are we going to do about it? Some people might have preferred to read that the problem is a disease and hopefully it will go just away. The truth is that there are things we are doing to the reef, things we are allowing to happen, and these things are weakening the corals, making them susceptible to various deadly pathogens, including the most recent one that is causing such panic in our area.

A vibrant, alive coral reef is something to die for, and we have the solution in our hands.

How many agricultural enterprises are observing the 66-feet rule? The National Lands Act calls for 66 feet of riparian forest to be left on the banks of rivers and streams. This 66-foot wide strip served when travel by river was common, so that landowners couldn’t block the access of travelers along the riverbank, but it also serves to protect the riverbanks and creek banks from collapsing. Riparian forests are very fertile, and when the rule is not enforced farmers are tempted to cut down the trees and plant in these areas.

This 66-foot wide strip works as an effective buffer, trapping fertilizers and pesticides and top soil so they don’t get into the rivers and streams. When fertilizers and pesticides are trapped in the buffers there is more time for these chemicals to be broken down into less harmful substances, and the top soil is held by the trees on the riverbank instead of going into the river, to be carried in the floods to the sea, and out to the reef.

What are we doing with the tons of waste water we produce daily when we wash clothing and kitchen utensils, especially in urban areas? Grey water is not a problem in the countryside, because out there it I is used by plants and it breaks down in the earth, but it becomes a pollutant if it enters the sea and rivers. Some countries treat grey water that is likely to reach and pollute the sea. What are we doing in Belize?

How much untreated fecal waste is finding its way out to sea every day? If this kind of waste is not properly treated before it enters the sea, the different pathogens and parasites therein find their way to our reef.

Who is monitoring those great ships that are coming to our shores, to ensure that they don’t dump any of the ugly stuff in their bilges into our beautiful sea? In some countries in the world they can get away with dumping ugly things in the sea because they have mostly dead waters, but our waters are alive, rich with life, and the life forms we treasure don’t do well when they encounter waste from our households, and chemicals, and silt.

We banded together to get a moratorium on oil drilling on our reef. There were a few who pressed for exploration for black gold in our prized coral beds, but they were turned back. We saw what happened with that massive leakage of oil in the Gulf of Mexico that was caused by an explosion at the Deepwater Horizon oil rig in 2010.

Dr. Jeremy Jackson, a marine ecologist who led a team of researchers on a study (for the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute) to find out the effects of an oil spill off the coast of Panama in 1986, said that what they learned, “in a nutshell, was never, ever, ever, ever allow oil to get into a complex coastal system of mangroves, sea grasses, and coral reefs because you’ll never get it out.”

We are the proud custodians of the second largest barrier reef in the world, and some time back we glowed about how alive our reef was. For some time it hasn’t been as alive as it was fifty years ago, and now a deadly disease has invaded that could reduce our beautiful coral to dead sand.

A very wise man said that we don’t inherit the earth from our ancestors, that we borrow it from our children. What kind of reef will our children and grandchildren have when it is their turn to roam the seas? Will there be plentiful fishes in the sea for them to catch, lobsters to trap, conch to dive? We are destroying the coral reef because we are ignoring the things we have to do to protect this incredible resource. We are the cause of the disease that is killing it.

Our state must pass and enforce laws that preserve this precious resource that our ancestors borrowed from us and we are borrowing from our children. Individually we are weak. We will be tempted to cut corners, for expediency, to maximize immediate profits. Collectively we are strong. The state must ensure that we are not the cause of the disease that endangers our fabulous reef.

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