Hope for corals in the Turks and Caicos Islands

Date posted: 28 May 2020

A bacterial infection that kills coral has been sweeping through the Turks and Caicos Islands (TCI), a UK Overseas Territory, where MCS has been carrying out projects for many years.

UW Set Up
© Alizee Zimmermann

TCI is believed to have the second largest barrier reef system in the Western Hemisphere, and Stony Coral Tissue Loss Disease (SCTLD) has been threatening to wipe parts of it out. Incredibly rich with marine life, these ‘rainforests of the sea’ help support a vital tourism industry which attracts more than a million visitors a year.

The disease appears as small patches of white exposed skeleton on the coral heads and can kill corals in a matter of days to a few weeks from them getting infected.

But Amdeep Sanghera, MCS UK Overseas Territories Officer, says there is hope:

“The disease can be stopped by the application, coral head by coral head, of an antibiotic salve, the use of which has led to a 60 -80% recovery rate of infected corals in Florida. Our partners at the TCI Reef Fund (TCRF) have government permission to carry out the treatment on the island’s corals and MCS has financially supported them in doing this painstaking work. Encouragingly, we are already seeing affected coral heads respond to the initial treatment, with the disease and entire colony mortality being stopped in its tracks.”

Don Stark, Chairman of TCRF says: “The initial results showing the effectiveness of the coral treatment are incredibly optimistic. MCS’s generous support is helping us to save live tissue on as many infected colonies as possible and reach our goal of significantly slowing down and ideally stopping the spread of infection on affected reefs.”

TCI Coral - Project Success

However, soon after these promising results the TCI Government imposed a lockdown in response to the Coronavirus pandemic, bringing all of TCRF’s vital work to treat and monitor corals affected by SCTLD to a grinding halt. Looking more widely, closed airports barring international traveller visits meant that TCI’s key economy of tourism had taken a monumental hit, leaving thousands of islanders without employment. If anything, one silver lining was that it provided a glimpse of island life decades ago, with streets free of cars, traffic and pollution.

TCRF have used this time to create online coral identification and SCTLD Observer training sessions, including with dive instructors who were on lockdown.

Alizee Zimmermaan, TCRF’s Project Manager for this initiative says “My main hope in conducting these online courses is that when the islands re-open locally, likely to be some time before we do internationally, we can gather trained volunteers to help us carry out broad scale surveys across the islands and get some very positive and meaningful work done.”

With the lockdown in TCI now having eased, and with TCRF back out on the water and resuming this urgent work, we hope this leads to a more secure future for TCI’s coral reefs.

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