Colonies of rice coral in Kanehoe Bay are being killed by a disease, called Montipora White Syndrome, scientists believe could do serious damage to Hawaii?s reef ecosystem. Three emergency response teams are tasked with trying to assess the extent of the die-off. A diver armed with a GPS device is helping to log and track the spread of the disease. About a year ago scientists saw a milder outbreak, but they are alarmed at the rate that the coral heads are now dying.
"This tissues sluffs off this coral within one or two weeks. They are killing these huge colonies," said Greta Aeby, of the Hawaii Institute of Marine Biology.
Those colonies are 10-20 years old and so it could take decades to replace them. The south end of the bay is where most of the damage is occurring. Scientists are finding it all along the fringing reefs and other areas further out in the bay.
"We have manipulative studies to try and figure out what are the enviromental stressors. We've got pretty good evidence that it is a bacterial infection. We are working with microbiologists at the University of Hawaii who are studying this,? Aeby said.
You can sense the urgency in Aeby's voice, as she tries to explain why the community should care.
"It's the reefs that support the entire eco-system. With out the corals for the crabs and shrimp to live in, there is no food for the little fish, so the whole eco-system will start collapsing. This is what's happening in the other areas in the Carribean. The fisheries are collapsing the reefs are collapsing. It is not a good thing," said Aeby.
She is asking for the public?s help to be a part of the "Eyes Of the Reef" reporting network.
"This is a program where we train anybody who is out on the water, fishermen, paddle boarders swimmers. It doesn?t matter if you are out on the reef looking at the coral you will be able to recognize change," Aeby said.
The free training program is offered on the Big Island, Maui, Kauai and Oahu. For information, log onto the websites of ?Eyes of the Reef? or ?Reef Check.?