Mystery Disease Threatens Mexican Caribbean Coral Reefs

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Mexico’s Caribbean resort region is facing an ecological catastrophe due to a mysterious contagious disease that has damaged up to 50 percent of all local marine coral species, according to Lorenzo Álvarez Filip, a researcher from the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM).

“This is a disease of tissue loss in hard corals, and the pathogen is still unknown, but it is associated with intense human activity in the region, such as with hotels, docks, wastewater and its poor treatment,” Álvarez Felip, who is a marine scientist at the Reef Systems Unit in Puerto Morelos in the Mexican state of Quintana Roo, told Xinhua.

The disease, which is highly contagious and can kill entire coral colonies in just days or weeks, was first detected off the coast of Miami, Florida, in 2014, Álvarez Felip explained.

“At the moment, the disease has spread throughout the Mexican Caribbean. In the Caribbean Sea, there are approximately 50 species of coral. This disease has attacked half of them — that is, from 20 to 25 coral species. It is lethal, and it is changing ecology.”

Among the most affected species are pillar, labyrinth and brain coral, whose mortality rate is greater than 90 percent, he said.

Over the course of the last two months, the disease has spread from the Mexican island of Cozumel to other countries, including Belize, Honduras and the Dominican Republic, as well as Puerto Rico, and Álvarez Felip said it could continue to spread throughout the Caribbean Sea or even farther.

“What is known is that locally, it is very easy for each organism to become infected through water, since that same liquid is carrying the disease from one place to another at an accelerated rate,” he said

Corals are organisms that serve as natural barriers against the impact of hurricanes and storms, protecting beaches.

They are also an important source of food for communities along the coasts and can generate income in tourism and fishing industries.

To avoid mass extinction, Álvarez Felip recommended efforts to recover the coral population that has already been lost.

“We can keep genetic material frozen to prevent its loss and, after environmental conditions improve, replant it,” he said.

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