Conservationists and divers alike are on edge over a mysterious disease sweeping through coral reefs in Kauai. Since June, a strange milky growth has been rapidly spreading around the island’s reefs. The Los Angeles Times reports:
The growth, identified by scientists at the U.S. Geological Survey as both a cyanobacterial pathogen — a bacteria that grows through photosynthesis — and a fungus, is killing all the coral it strikes, and spreading at the rate of 1 to 3 inches a week on every coral it infects.
Scientists are at a loss as 50- to 100-year-old corals succumb to the disease, which has compromised an entire reef system for 60 miles. The new disease, which first appeared in 2004 but only at very low levels, shows no signs of abating any time soon. Researchers say the problem picked up following two years of heavy sedimentation arriving from a nearby river, which scientists suspect may be traced to upstream development and especially heavy rains.
More than just biodiversity is at stake. Hawaii’s multibillion-dollar tourist industry depends upon stunning underwater displays such as the ones found in Kauai.
Scientists have no idea what’s causing the outbreak, which they say has reached epidemic proportions, though they wonder if the coral may first been weakened by pollution, which made it more susceptible to infection. Though scientists have not found evidence that the disease may affect humans or other wildlife, if the coral dies, then all of the fish, turtles and various invertebrates that depend upon it will soon be lost, too.
“A lot of people come to Hawaii in part because it is a beautiful place both on land and in the water, so coral reefs are a resource with tangible economic value,” a USGS scientist told the Times. “Like it or not, ecosystem health is closely intertwined with human and animal health.”
More from Smithsonian.com: