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Stony coral tissue loss disease identification, monitoring and treatment training in Montserrat and Anguilla

By Abbie Dosell and Bryony Meakins

Our latest blog post is provided by Abbie Dosell and Bryony Meakins, from our International Implementation Team. They tell us about some training workshops which were recently held on the UK Overseas Territories of Montserrat and Anguilla. These training workshops looked at the identification, monitoring and treatment of the highly virulent stony coral tissue loss disease (SCTLD), a disease which is affecting over 20 species of coral in the Caribbean region and having a devastating effect on coral reefs.

Coral reefs are vibrant ecosystems that face a very uncertain future under current climate predictions. The Global Coral Reef Monitoring Network’s report, Status of the Coral Reefs of the World: 2020, highlights a decline in coral cover globally. Coral bleaching and disease have led to mass coral mortality events, and this is only predicted to worsen with the increasing effects of climate change and associated ocean acidification. Declining coral cover results in a devastating loss of both biodiversity and the high value services provided by reefs such as storm surge protection, food security and tourism.

To combat this urgent threat, JNCC has developed a programme of work to support environmental resilience in the United Kingdom Overseas Territories (UKOTs) under the UK Government’s Conflict Sustainability and Security Fund (CSSF). As part of this programme, JNCC is working with the six Caribbean UK Overseas Territories (UKOTs), namely Anguilla, Bermuda, the British Virgin Islands (BVI), the Cayman Islands, Montserrat, and the Turks and Caicos Islands (TCI), to implement priority elements from their coral reef action plans to support coral reef conservation and restoration. The project covers four overarching themes of reef conversation: coral reef monitoring, outreach and education, reduction of pressures, and coral disease management.

Photo: Stony coral tissue loss disease on Diploria labyrinthiformis coral colony (© Abbie Dosell / JNCC).

First reported in 2014 in Florida, stony coral tissue loss disease (SCTLD) is now present in 22 countries and territories across the Caribbean. Affecting over 20 species of coral, it is responsible for severe coral mortality, reduction in coral species diversity and a decline in coral reef ecosystem biodiversity. Project funding and scientific advice is being delivered through Memoranda of Agreement to support each Overseas Territory's (Turks and Caicos Islands, British Virgin Islands, Cayman Islands, Montserrat, Anguilla) individual responses to SCTLD.

In November 2021, SCTLD training workshops were held in Montserrat and Anguilla, focussing on coral disease ecology, identification, management and treatment methods. These workshops took place in collaboration with Montserrat Ministry of Agriculture, Lands, Housing & Environment; Anguilla Department of Natural Resources; Island Solutions Montserrat; JNCC; and coral disease expert Dr Greta Aeby.

Photo: Anguilla workshop attendees from Government of Anguilla Department of Natural Resources, Anguilla National Trust, JNCC, and and Dr Greta Aeby.

Photo: Montserrat workshop attendees from Government of Montserrat Ministry of Agriculture, Lands, Housing & Environment; Scuba Montserrat; Montserrat Port Authority; Montserrat marine police; UK Overseas Territories Conservation Forum (UKOTCF); JNCC; and Dr Greta Aeby.

During these workshops, stakeholders, including government staff, dive operators and local NGOs, received both classroom and in-water training on practical methods to identify, monitor and treat coral diseases, focussing particularly on SCTLD. Participants in both Anguilla and Montserrat conducted disease surveys to monitor the prevalence of SCTLD on their reefs and established sites for treatment.


Photo: Montserrat divers conducting coral colony mapping on Montserrat’s coral reefs (© Dr Greta Aeby).

Photo: Workshop participants practicing applying the chlorine-based coral disease treatment (© Abbie Dosell / JNCC). 

The workshops received great feedback:

The SCTLD workshop was very exciting and informative, and left us with a better understanding of the threats affecting our coral reefs. Before the workshop, we were unaware of the extent to which the disease was affecting our corals, and the true nature of the disease and possible impacts on the surrounding environment. Thankfully, we now have trained persons who are capable of slowing the spread of SCTLD in our surrounding waters and imparting knowledge to all stakeholders.’ – Fisheries Management Officer Jason Daniel, Anguilla Fisheries Unit.

The Fisheries Unit is very grateful for the collaboration with JNCC. Had it not been for the workshop in November, the hard work of Dr. Aeby and the Fisheries Officers, we would not have noticed the early occurrence of SCTLD. The lessons learnt from the workshop and future collaborations will assist Anguilla with saving the island’s coral reefs and protecting vital industries such as fishing and tourism.’ – Director Kafi S. Gumbs, Anguilla Fisheries Unit.

Photo: A disease coral colony with the chlorine and cocoa butter based treatment applied (© Emmy Aston / Scuba Montserrat). 

Moving forward, through the CSSF programme, JNCC will continue to support Montserrat and Anguilla to utilise the skills developed in these workshops to undertake further SCTLD monitoring and management in order to minimise the impacts of SCTLD on coral reef biodiversity, maximise reproductive potential and promote recovery of these essential ecosystems.

Beyond direct disease treatment, a reef free from environmental stressors and other pressures will be more likely to naturally recover from disease outbreaks. For this reason, the project is also looking to identify opportunities to reduce other pressures on coral reefs in the UKOTs, such as fisheries and water quality management, to help increase the ability of the coral reefs of the UKOTs to withstand disease and climate change.

This project falls under JNCC’s wider CSSF programme to support environmental resilience in the UKOTs. Coral reef management and healthy coral reef ecosystems play a key role in both the environmental and economic resilience of island states by providing protection from storm surge, supporting food security and underpinning key economic sectors such as tourism and fisheries.

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