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Coral Kaua‘i’s coral reefs under attack

University of Hawai‘i, USGS investigating massive coral deaths

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Posted: Sunday, November 18, 2012 1:00 am

A rapidly-spreading coral disease along Kaua‘i’s North Shore may be affecting turtles, fish and even humans, according to a team of scientists.

A year ago, Dr. Greta Aeby, a coral expert with the Hawai‘i Institute of Marine Biology at the University of Hawai‘i, sent out an alert to scientists and divers about a disease affecting corals in Kane‘ohe Bay on O‘ahu.

When Terry Lilley, a marine biologist and scuba diver in Hanalei, received the alert, he said he became concerned because it sounded similar to what he had seen and filmed — but could not identify — in reefs on Kaua‘i.

As it turns out, the disease is similar to that seen on O‘ahu, which is eating the coral at lightning speeds, according to Lilley, who graduated with a degree in biological sciences from California Polytechnic University, San Luis Obispo, in 1980. As the black-colored bacteria moves through the coral, it strips off live tissue, leaving a white, dead skeleton exposed.

“The fascinating part is this disease has gone out of control and could potentially wipe out the reefs,” he said. “We don’t know where this bacteria came from. We don’t know how it spreads.”

A year ago, Lilley began filming infected rice corals along the North Shore. At that time he said he documented 100 infections at 20 different dive locations. Today, he said the number of infected coral is likely in the millions.

“Last summer, for some unknown reason, the infection rates went up to 100 infections per dive, to where now, at a number of sites, there are so many infections we are counting the corals that are not infected,” he said. “Every place along the North Shore we are finding this stuff, and a lot of it.”


After reviewing older underwater video footage he shot along Kaua‘i’s North Shore, Lilley tracked the disease back to 2007, which he said is important for giving scientists a timeline.

The white coral disease outbreak is believed to be caused by a new strain of cyanobacteria, unique to Kaua‘i, which is killing corals that often take 50 years to grow at a rate of one to two inches per week, according to Lilley.

“There seems to be an unknown fungus working with this bacteria … in my career as an investigative biologist, I have never been stumped to a degree such as this.”

Over the past few months, a rapid response team of top scientists — including Aeby and Dr. Thierry Work, head of Infectious Disease for the U.S. Geological Survey — have been involved in a disease study along Kaua‘i’s North Shore.

 In August, Work traveled to Kaua‘i and did extensive DNA and toxicology testing on the disease at Tunnels Reef. An official report was filed Sept. 4 by the USGS outlining the reef’s poor condition.

“Because of the extensive mortality evident from Mr. Lilley’s photos, we (USGS) decided to carry out a field investigation to sample corals in attempts to figure out what may be causing this mortality,” Work writes in the report. “The overall picture was one of a severely degraded reef impacted by sediments and turf algae. … It is tempting to conclude that degraded conditions of the reef could have precipitated infection by fungi and cyanobacteria leading to the lesions seen here, however, confirming this would require longitudinal studies and more systematic sampling over time.”

Work returned to Kaua‘i in early October to perform a second round of detailed testing.

“They not only did DNA testing but they took samples of this fungus for toxicology studies and they took samples of the water column, to see if this disease is actually floating around in the water,” Lilley said.

A full report of Work’s DNA, bacteria and toxicology study is expected to be available within the next month or so.  

Marine life,

people affected

At this point, Lilley says the disease outbreak is no longer just his own opinion, which he admits has been called into question in the past, but a “mathematical equation.”

“This needs everyone’s attention,” he said. “If we lose our coral reefs on Kaua‘i, it’s not only going to affect the marine life … it’s going to affect you and I.”

After confirming the disease in early October, Aeby and her team began treating infected corals in ‘Anini Bay with a type of marine epoxy, similar to a fire break approach, in an attempt to try and stop its spread.

“It is working,” Lilley said. “Most of the epoxy barriers we put down did stop the disease from spreading across the coral … that’s the good news.”

But the problem along the North Shore is that the disease is so widespread, with upwards of 1 million affected coral, according to Lilley.

“This study is more for helping other places, not the North Shore,” he said. “There is no way we can physically stop it at this point.”

Instead, the team of scientists is looking for ways to control the disease should it surface in other locations.

Another big concern is whether this new strain of cyanobacteria could be infectious to humans and marine life.

“I believe it is already affecting marine life,” said Lilley, who claims to have filmed turtles with large tumors and puffer fish with fins that are rotting and falling off.

The question of whether there is a connection between the dying coral and diseased marine life is still to be determined by Aeby, Work and other scientists involved in the ongoing study.

While Aeby and Work continue to search for a cause and cure, Lilley is monitoring and documenting its spread with underwater video equipment.

The biggest setback of the ongoing study, according to Lilley, has been financial insufficiency.

“Most third-world countries that I’ve been in communication with, including the Cook Islands — we’re talking about places that aren’t wealthy — put 1,000 times more resources into studying their marine environment than Kaua‘i,” he said. “I’ve been all around the world and I’ve never seen any island that is more understudied than Kaua‘i.”

Lilley said his concern is not that future generations won’t be able to enjoy Kaua‘i’s coral reefs.

“I’m extremely concerned about whether or not you, on your next trip back to Kaua‘i, 10 years from now, are going to be able to see a coral reef.”

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Welcome to the discussion.


  • Kauaidiver11 posted at 9:16 am on Mon, Nov 19, 2012.

    Kauaidiver11 Posts: 0

    Its easy for critics to focus on Terry's background. People going for such low hanging fruit just distracts from the real issue at hand - the colossal environmental damage that's happening as we speak.

    Accusing Terry of not being useful however is just ridiculous. Who is "working hard to solve the issues"? Maybe the people who stand to make millions? I'm sure they are doing their best to convince the gullible that they "care about the environment".

    Terry used to be a herpitologist - an expert on reptiles. He needed to be, because he owned a reptile zoo in CA. Think about the expertise required, then tell me again about how he's not a biologist.

    Terrys has no money for monitoring yet because this is just the beginning. The UH scientists who are working with Terry, however, are very well funded.

    Terry sometimes makes mistakes but I would caution anyone against blindly believing the critics. He means well and what's at stake is too important.

  • konabish posted at 8:26 am on Mon, Nov 19, 2012.

    konabish Posts: 36

    Well said.

  • koolau posted at 7:13 am on Mon, Nov 19, 2012.

    koolau Posts: 10

    Degrees are certainly not necessary to care or steward our fragile island BUT, claiming to have or be something you are not AND accusing the very folks who are also working hard to solve the issues is NOT professional nor useful. A history of false information should be a warning. He also claimed to be a herpitologist, which is it, snakes or marine critters?
    Any of us, all of us should be helping those who want to solve problems but asking for money at every press opportunity is a suspect strategy. If the work and the worker are legit, funding would be available. Consider the reason his work is not funded by the many agencies who spend millions every year on coral reef work. It is not a grand conspiracy, he has no credentials and no one will spend money on work that won't matter. We all know many examples of folks coming to Kauai who think we are simpletons that can be fooled, not this time.

  • riverriim posted at 9:19 pm on Sun, Nov 18, 2012.

    riverriim Posts: 342

    Diminishing reefs, diminishing breakwaters, diminishing shoreline, diminishing island, rising oceans ... am starting to sense an Atlantis-like transition from being under the sun to being under the ocean.

  • Islander posted at 7:59 pm on Sun, Nov 18, 2012.

    Islander Posts: 38

    The article does not say "Dr. Lilly." It simply says he has a degree in marine biology and he is a marine biologist.

    My family knows Terry and he truly is a marine biologist. He lives and breathes the ocean (so to speak). He probably knows more about the ocean than Jimmy J can imagine.

    I think his many hours of work are volunteer work, but we should give him more respect for that, not less.

  • Peace4Kaua'i posted at 7:24 pm on Sun, Nov 18, 2012.

    Peace4Kaua'i Posts: 55

    Extremely saddling 4 all. Turf algae sounds like ...

  • Meme posted at 2:37 pm on Sun, Nov 18, 2012.

    Meme Posts: 1

    I'm grateful for anyone, regardless of degrees earned, willing to dedicate their time, resources, and energy towards preserving Kauai's reef life. If what is stated is true, which I have no reason to believe otherwise, then we ALL should be worried as hell and pay respect to those willing to work on eradicating the problem. Petty, personal BS has gotten in the way of so much good here, and it's a true sham as we ALL pay the price.

  • AnonyMouse posted at 10:39 am on Sun, Nov 18, 2012.

    AnonyMouse Posts: 987

    A lot of the Westside reef damage is due to silt from erosion. At least some, if not a lot, of the erosion is due to loss of mauka plant life that used to better hold the dirt thanks to feral goats and pigs. It’s another reason to minimize the population of these introduced beasts. But then, the natural pre-human erosion of Waimea Canyon caused the silt which eventually became the Waimea-Kekaha-Mana plane. When the earth moves, even slowly, not all living things survive.

  • kauaiboy posted at 8:59 am on Sun, Nov 18, 2012.

    kauaiboy Posts: 334

    You do not need a degree to care deeply about the reefs, and you do not necessarily need a degree to be well-educated about them either. Lilley will never get rich investigating the health of our reefs, and it seems like his investigations have peaked the interest of those who do hold degrees. So, Jimmy J, what exactly is your beef with Lilley?

  • Jimmy J posted at 8:03 am on Sun, Nov 18, 2012.

    Jimmy J Posts: 49

    Where did Dr. Lilly get his degree? That's what I thought, he didn't. He isn't a doctor or scientist any more than I am.

  • tunataxi posted at 7:07 am on Sun, Nov 18, 2012.

    tunataxi Posts: 802

    Want to see something scary go look at the reef outside of Horner's ....or worse yet Between Pakalas and Waimea....makes hanalei look good


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