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Coral Disease Reaches The Remote Tortugas

 A diver applies antibiotics to an elliptical star coral with stony coral tissue loss disease in the Tortugas.
Rachel Johns
Dry Tortugas National Park
A diver applies antibiotics to an elliptical star coral with stony coral tissue loss disease in the Tortugas.

For more than five years, a disease has been wiping out corals that provide the foundation for Florida's reef tract. Now it's reached the most remote and healthy area of the reef.

Biologists at Dry Tortugas National Park have been monitoring 40 different coral sites since last September. They were on the lookout for stony coral tissue loss disease. First spotted off Miami in 2014, the disease has been spreading along the reef and killing swathes of the corals that serve as the building block for reefs.

On May 29, the Tortugas coral response team found white lesions on three species of coral — maze, white maze and elliptical star coral — about 2 1/2 miles east of Fort Jefferson. A survey at the same site May 6 had found no disease.

Divers applied an antibiotic paste to the affected corals. The coral response team will also step up their monitoring to watch for the spread of the disease.

Dry Tortugas National Park has worked with the state, NOAA, universities and aquaria on the Coral Rescue Project that collected corals ahead of the disease's path, in the hopes of preserving them in human care. More than 400 corals were collected from the park in July 2019.

The disease has already spread widely throughout the Caribbean. Last summer, it was found on reefs in Guadeloupe and St. Lucia.

Corals in the region have seen disease outbreaks before but this one is more lethal, persistent and widespread than any before it.

The Tortugas are an isolated group of islands 70 miles west of Key West, with a Civil War-era fort on Garden Key. Portions of the region are no-fishing zones, protected by the national park and the Keys National Marine Sanctuary.

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Nancy Klingener covers the Florida Keys for WLRN. Since moving to South Florida in 1989, she has worked for the Miami Herald, Solares Hill newspaper and the Monroe County Public Library.