In the latest heartbreaking wounding of the environment, researchers have linked a deadly coral disease in the Caribbean to ship wastewater.
The rampaging blight that first hit Florida’s reefs in 2014 has now swept through the Bahamas, Jamaica, St. Maarten and Mexico, reports The Guardian. It’s also been found in 18 other countries.
The infection, known as stony coral tissue loss disease (SCTLD), spreads more quickly than other known coral diseases and can travel up to 55 yards in a single day.
It also has an exceptionally high mortality rate among the most vulnerable species — and it may be the most lethal disease to ever infect coral. More than 30 species of coral are susceptible to SCTLD.
Scientists haven’t yet been able to determine whether the disease is caused by a virus, bacterium, chemical or some other infectious agent.
But a new study of SCTLD in the Bahamas — where it was first seen in 2019 — found that the coral disease was more prevalent in reefs that were closer to the main commercial ports in Nassau and Grand Bahama, suggesting that ship wastewater may be to blame for the disease.
“Spatial patterns of mortality and infection rates for the most vulnerable species were greatest close to international commercial shipping ports on both islands, suggesting SCTLD has been present in those locations for a longer time, and the proportion of healthy colonies increased with distance from the port,” noted the research by scientists from the Perry Institute for Marine Science in the Bahamas, which was published in the journal Frontiers in Marine Science.
Researchers noted that the “greatest declines” in coral populations in the Bahamas over the past decade may be “attributed to the recent introduction of stony coral tissue loss disease.”
SCTLD has infected coral off Grand Bahama Island along a 46-mile stretch. “That is a large structure of reef,” said Krista Sherman, senior scientist for the Perry Institute and co-author of the study. “We’re talking about mostly covering the entire southern coastline of the island.”
The International Maritime Organization implemented the Ballast Water Management Convention in 2017 in response to the spread of deadly pathogens by ships when they discharge ballast water.
Under the convention, any ballast water released by ships must be at least 200 nautical miles from shore in water at least 200 meters (656 feet) deep before entering port to ensure the ships do not bring in pathogens.
The Bahamian government has established a national task force to address the issue in a nation where pristine water and beautiful coral reefs are a huge draw in the mighty tourist industry.
Currently, the most effective treatment for the disease is the antibiotic amoxicillin, applied directly to the corals.
This article originally appeared on HuffPost and has been updated.