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April 2019    Download the Entire Issue (PDF) Available to the Public Vol. 45, No. 4   RSS Feed for Undercurrent Issues
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Red Tide Is Gone, But Here Is Florida’s New Coastal Threat

from the April, 2019 issue of Undercurrent   Subscribe Now

Every year, dive boats from Looe Key Reef Resort, on Ramrod Key in Florida, take 20,000 divers to Looe Key Reef, but that number is now being sharply reduced -- this crown jewel in Florida's reef system is on the verge of extinction. From the Lower Keys to Martin County in the north, Florida's Atlantic coast is suffering from stony coral tissue loss disease.

Although outbreaks of this disease have never been uncommon, its geographic range is unprecedented this time, as is its extended duration, rapid progression, high rates of coral mortality and the number of species affected. Coral bleaching and septic discharge emanating from Lake Okeechobee have taken their toll over the years, but stony coral tissue loss disease could be the coup de grâace for the coral on Looe Key Reef, and many others. Presumed to be caused by bacteria, this disease can be transmitted coral to coral by both contact and ocean currents. Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary researchers are working on strategies for treating diseased colonies and identifying genotypes of corals that may be resistant.

What should Florida-based and Florida-bound divers do to ensure we don't make matters worse? Always remove any sediment or debris from your gear after every dive, and wash it thoroughly with a bleach solution if it has come into contact with coral. Otherwise, wash it using anti-bacterial soap. (If you use quaternary ammonium solution to decontaminate dive gear, it should be properly disposed of in a sink, tub or shower -- never poured into the ocean or a storm drain --- but be aware that it can adversely affect septic systems and leak into ground water.)

Brian Lapointe, a research professor at Florida Atlantic University, just released a study of data collected over three decades revealing what nobody wants to hear. "Sadly, we've lost virtually all of the coral [in Florida]," he says. "We're down to five percent of what we formerly had."

In an effort to learn more about the extent of stony coral tissue loss disease, agents for Florida Sea Grant, a University of Florida-based coastal conservation program, are training recreational divers to conduct surveys in South Florida. Contact Ana Zangroniz, Florida Sea Grant's agent in Miami, for more info at

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