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Coral Conservation

Updated: Jan 19, 2022

A QUEST TO SAVE THE CORALS

by Amy Gordon


A vast ecosystem of sea creatures swim in the waters surrounding Vieques—from spiny Caribbean lobsters to colorful schools of parrotfish to magnificent sea turtles—and they all rely on corals to sustain them. But just like any other living thing, corals are susceptible to disease and one relatively new ailment is threatening more than 20 species.



Stony Coral Tissue Loss Disease (SCTLD) first appeared in Florida in 2014 and tracked since throughout the Caribbean. It’s a lethal sickness that spreads fast, and while it can’t be cured, it can be treated and contained. Sarah Elise P. Field, owner/operator of Crystal Clear tours, is on a mission to protect Vieques corals from SCTLD and keep our underwater ecosystems intact.


A steward of the sea, Sarah Elise attended training in 2019 in San Juan about identifying and treating SCTLD. “The team from Sea Grant Florida essentially came to warn us,” she recalls. “They’ve been dealing with it since 2014 and have seen firsthand the damage it can do.” The disease was first detected in Vieques in 2020, which unfortunately coincided with the start of the Covid-19 lockdown. “It was so frustrating not to be able to get out there and see what was happening to the corals,” Sarah Elise says.


When she was finally able to get back into the water, she came across a coral that looked suspect. “I took a photo, followed up with Ana Zangroniz from Sea Grant Florida, and she confirmed that it was, in fact, SCTLD,” she recalls. “I started going to different reefs and reporting what I saw.” She eventually connected with Departamento de Recursos Naturales y Ambientales who came to Vieques to lead treatment at an infected reef. “I was blown away,” says Miss Field. “This is becoming a reality!” She got a permit to treat the disease on her own in February 2021. She’s been hard at work focusing her first efforts at Rompeolas, the breakwater on the north side of Vieques. A popular diving and snorkeling spot for locals and tourists, the area is easily accessible, home to more than 15 different coral species and draws a wide range of sea life.


While the dead portions of the corals won’t come back to life, the point is to keep SCTLD from progressing. “I’ve treated at Rompeolas multiple times now, so it’s somewhat under control,” says Sarah Elise. “We were able to catch it in time.” In fact, only one treated coral has died out of more than 100 corals treated at this site.

As a tour guide, she is in the unique position of having eyes on the same reefs on a regular basis, an invaluable tool in learning about a relatively young disease. Sarah Elise’s photos appear in the SCTLD intervention plan for all of Puerto Rico, and she recently received an email from the manager of the Coral Reef Conservation & Management Program asking to include them in a presentation to the governor.


Today, Sarah Elise’s team consists of her and one other certified treater, Emily Walsh. A third is in the process of applying for a permit to join the efforts, and Sarah Elise hopes to amass a team of dedicated volunteers that can work together to stop the spread of SCTLD in Vieques waters. Because the effort was initiated by Sarah Elise, she currently donates $5 of every snorkel tour booked with Crystal Clear. Learn more about the initiative and how you can help at www.viequescoralconservation.com.


See Something? Say Something!

The Atlantic and Gulf Rapid Reef Assessment (AGRRA), a nonprofit that champions coral reef conservation, features an interactive SCTLD tracking map on its website. You can see where the disease has been spotted and submit a survey to report possible sightings. Photos are necessary to confirm SCTLD sightings. Access the map and learn more at www.agrra.org/coral-disease-outbreak or email info@agrra.org







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