Ballast Water Could Be The Culprit Behind Lethal Coral Disease

Scientists investigating the highly destructive stony coral disease, which has infected reefs in South Florida and the Caribbean, have zeroed in on a culprit behind the unpredictable spread of the disease: ballast water from big ships. As WGCU reported, investigators are now poring over shipping records housed at the Smithsonian to confirm the connection and better contain it.

What Is Stony Coral Disease?

As NOAA explained,

  • In September 2014, researchers began noticing that certain stony corals along the Florida Reef Tract weren’t doing well. The Florida Reef Tract stretches approximately 360 miles in an arc along the Florida Keys and southeastern Florida.
  • Off Virginia Key, in Miami-Dade County, corals were showing “small circular or irregular patches of white, exposed skeleton devoid of tissue,” explains Dr. Andy Bruckner, research coordinator for Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary.
  • From there, the tissue would slough off, leaving the stark white skeleton exposed until algae colonized it. The disease, he explains, “radiates across the colony and outward.”

Solving the Mystery: WGCU explained that coral biologists got their first inkling that stony coral disease might be unlike other diseases that waxed and waned with temperatures when it lasted nonstop through the winter seasons. They confirmed it was waterborne and suspected it was caused by a bacteria. However, they struggled to determine other factors including where it came from.

Then, just recently, stony coral disease spread to the U.S. Virgin Islands after a ship there made an unauthorized release of ballast. 

What is Ballast Water? According to the USDA, ballast water is one of the major pathways for the introduction of nonindigenous marine species as well as toxins and disease. Ballast water is fresh or saltwater held in the ballast tanks and cargo holds of ships. It is used to provide stability and maneuverability during a voyage when ships are not carrying cargo, not carrying heavy enough cargo, or when more stability is required due to rough seas.

Why This Matters: By 2024, ships will be required to have onboard treatment systems to clean water under a 2004 treaty administered by the International Maritime Organization. However, scientists must test if these treatment systems are capable of killing story coral disease. The disease, unlike coral bleaching, kills corals entirely so that they cannot come back. 

In countries like the U.S., the Coast Guard can enforce that ships release ballast water far enough offshore so as not to disrupt ecosystems. However, in poorer nations like that of the Caribbean, a lack of resources can prevent them from enforcing these rules. Those countries could also suffer disproportionately because they rely so heavily on their reefs for both tourism and food.

Up Next

One Cool Thing: Environmental DNA

One Cool Thing: Environmental DNA

UNESCO has launched a new program to collect, analyze, and monitor environmental DNA (AKA eDNA) to better understand biodiversity at its marine World Heritage sites. Scientists will collect genetic material from fish cells, mucus, and waste across multiple locations along with eDNA from soil, water, and air.   The two-year project will help experts assess […]

Continue Reading 136 words
One Cool Thing: Otters Stoke Seagrass Romance

One Cool Thing: Otters Stoke Seagrass Romance

It’s about time we had a conversation about the birds and the bees…or in this case, the otters and the seagrass. A new study found that the ecological relationship between sea otters and the seagrass fields where they make their home is spurring the rapid reproduction of the plants. Otters dig up about 5% of […]

Continue Reading 149 words
“Ticking Time Bomb” Oil Tanker Threatens Food & Water Supply for Millions

“Ticking Time Bomb” Oil Tanker Threatens Food & Water Supply for Millions

By Amy Lupica, ODP Daily Editor An abandoned oil tanker off the coast of Yemen is deteriorating rapidly, and experts say that a hull breach could have far-reaching environmental impacts and threaten millions of people’s access to food and water supplies. The FSO SAFER tanker holds 1.1 million barrels of oil — more than four […]

Continue Reading 437 words

Want the planet in your inbox?

Subscribe to the email that top lawmakers, renowned scientists, and thousands of concerned citizens turn to each morning for the latest environmental news and analysis.