This deadly disease thrives in warmer waters, creating an uncertain future for marine life

Stony Coral Tissue Loss Disease has hit half of the corals along the Florida Keys, and it’s now targeting the Caribbean

MMA fighter Kayla Harrison, at left, joins Pepsi "Stronger Together" and Force Blue's Coral Reef Survey as they aim to stave off climate change by turning recreational divers into scientists on Aug. 23, 2021 in Lauderdale-by-the-Sea, Florida. (Jason Koerner, Getty Images for Pepsi Stronger Together)

A deadly disease is thriving in warmer waters, creating an uncertain future for the Florida coast. Now, the government is putting aside differences to effect change. Volunteers are making a huge impact, as well.

What are we talking about here?

The coral reefs -- they’re fighting for their lives.

Scientists are blaming warmer temperatures for this environmental crisis: Warmer ocean water is helping to fuel this disease that has now attacked 95% of Florida’s coral reefs. The coral is now at risk of extinction.

So, what can be done?

There’s actually a massive effort underway. On the outside, it might look like any other office building in one of Orlando’s warehouse districts. But what’s happening inside is a fast-moving mission to save a species.

The Florida Coral Rescue Center houses 18 aquariums filled with more than 750 colorful corals. All of them have been rescued from threatened reefs.

“We believe the disease started around the Miami area, and it’s been spreading much like a wildfire,” said Dr. Andy Stamper, a conservation science manager for Walt Disney World.

Stony Coral Tissue Loss Disease has hit half of the corals along the Florida Keys, and it’s now targeting the Caribbean, Stamper said.

Scientists don’t know where the disease came from, but they do know warmer ocean temperatures put stress on the corals, and make it easier for bacteria to spread. That’s why a team of wildlife experts took corals from the wild: To protect them and raise them inside the rescue center.

“The federal and state governments felt that it was extremely important to take a small population out to save it for future restoration efforts,” Stamper said.

The reefs are vital in that they help protect Florida’s coastline from stronger hurricanes and the storm surge that comes with them, not to mention, 25% of creatures in the ocean depend on coral reefs for their homes and food, Stamper said.

“When we protect the shoreline, we protect tourism,” Stamper said. “We protect housing. They are incredibly important for Florida.”

And that’s why a team of experts is now collaborating to protect the coral.

“It’s a very unique partnership,” said Jim Kinsler, the aquarium curator at SeaWorld Orlando, who also serves as the facility manager at the Coral Rescue Center, as he spoke about the efforts with the Florida Coral Rescue Project.

“Zoological institutions like SeaWorld and Disney – we have the expertise of maintaining and keeping corals … coral aqua culture, this is right in our wheelhouse,” Kinsler said.

The partnership is led by the Association for Zoos and Aquariums, and involves Disney Conservation and SeaWorld, the Fish and Wildlife Foundation of Florida, NOAA Fisheries, and the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.

“We’ve shown that we’ve been very successful holding the corals here,” said Justin Zimmerman, an aquarium supervisor with SeaWorld Orlando. “The corals are growing. They seem to be happy and doing well.”

The Rescue Center simulates conditions as close as possible to natural conditions, with LED lights, pumps, and about 6,000 gallons of saltwater, which has to be managed constantly.

“The goal of this project is to get all of these corals and make the reefs down in the Keys pristine again (and) to get these corals back in the ocean,” Zimmerman said.

Watching to see where this mysterious disease may spread next is a major task.

State environmental leaders have enlisted the help of anyone who’s willing to dive in -- literally. Volunteers report to the ocean, go in, fill out a form afterward to report what kind of condition the corals are in, and send it in to a state database.

One group working on this is called Force Blue. We caught up with some of the members helping to save Florida’s coral, as they recently dived to a reef off the coast of Lauderdale-by-the-Sea.

MMA fighter Kayla Harrison joins Pepsi "Stronger Together" and Force Blue Coral Reef Survey as they aim to stave off climate change by turning recreational divers into scientists on Aug. 23, 2021 in Lauderdale-by-the-Sea, Florida. (Getty Images for Pepsi Stronger Together)

Retired Navy SEAL master chief Steve Gonzalez has been spearheading Force Blue’s involvement in the Florida Coral Rescue Project. He’s been on more than 100 dives to monitor the coral for signs of illness, life and death, he said. The group looks for coral disease, coral bleaching and more.

“Nine out of 10 times, this is caused by fellow humans,” Gonzalez said. “Sometimes (it happens) on purpose, and usually unknowingly. Plastics play such a big part (and so does) waste – things that we just don’t think about until you’re underwater and you see the impact of what it has on the coral reef – and then, of course, on the marine life that feeds off that coral reef.”

Veteran divers flocked to the area from across Florida. Miami Dolphins wide receiver Mack Hollins even suited up.

People formed four teams to search for two big threats facing the coral: Bleaching, as mentioned, which specifically is caused by rising water temperatures, and Stony Coral Tissue Disease.

Divers brought what they found to Patti Kirk-Gross, who combined all of it and uploaded it to the Florida Department of Environmental Protection.

“We are really, really close to a tipping point,” Kirk-Gross said.

But she has faith that efforts like this may help turn things around and save the coral from extinction.

“I don’t think that will ever, in my life, (be restored) to where it looks the same,” Kirk-Gross said. “It’s always going to look different. But if we could just bring – especially the corals, back to where they would spawn and have a place to land and grow, that would make me happy.”

Miami Dolphins football player Mack Hollins joins Pepsi "Stronger Together" and Force Blue Coral Reef Survey as they aim to stave off climate change by turning recreational divers into scientists on Aug. 23, 2021 in Lauderdale-by-the-Sea, Florida. (Getty Images for Pepsi Stronger Together)

The fight to save the coral has even made it as far as Washington, D.C.

Florida Rep. Darren Soto said he has seen what’s happening to the waning coral population off the coast, and he even witnessed it firsthand during a scuba trip to Key Largo.

“It was a real personal moment, because I see the decline of the Great Florida Reef and (I have) the sense of responsibility to help save it,” Soto said.

When asked whether it impacted him, Soto answered, “No question.”

Florida Sen. Marco Rubio went on a similar trip to the same spot. When you look at photos from that area in 1971 and 2004, you can see just how much things are changing. Coral is dying while plants are taking over.

Soto, a Democrat, and Rubio, a Republican, put aside their political differences and teamed up to introduce identical bills in the House and Senate.

The Restoring Resilient Reefs Act involves $53 million in funding with $15 million to states, and if they’re both passed, the act would make that $53 million available to national coral restoration efforts. The $15 million would be earmarked for projects in individual states, like Florida’s Coral Rescue Project.

“We thought it was really important – to strengthen NOAA’s coral reef program, to allow it to partner with these local organizations and local communities,” Rubio said. “And to drive the level of funding necessary to keep that innovation going.”

Federal funding is vital to continue these efforts, agreed Dr. Michael Crosby, the president and CEO of Mote Marine Labratory and Aquarium in Sarasota, Florida.

Crosby helped Rubio’s staff with the wording of the Senate bill, he said.

“We’re witnessing these coral reefs sliding into extinction,” Crosby said. “And as scientists, the last thing I want to do is say, ‘We did a d--- good job monitoring them into extinction.’ I’d rather say, ‘We did a d--- good job in actually restoring them and bringing them back.’”

It’s not a short-term project. This disease is ravaging the coastal reefs off Florida and in the Caribbean. Reefs, it should be noted, are all over tropical and even sub-tropical waters, including off the coast of Galveston, Texas. Organizations such as the Galveston Bay Foundation are helping preserve the waters nearby.


About the Authors:

Erik Sandoval joined the News 6 team as a reporter in May 2013 and became an Investigator in 2020. During his time at News 6, Erik has covered several major stories, including the 2016 Presidential campaign. He was also one of the first reporters live on the air at the Pulse Nightclub shooting.

Michelle is the Managing Editor of Graham Media Group's Digital Content Team, which writes for all of the company's news websites.