UH to continue coral disease study Thursday

LIHUE — Christina Runyon, a graduate student in marine biology at the University of Hawaii, returns to Kauai Thursday to continue studying a deadly coral disease around the island.

In February, Runyon was selected to lead the university’s investigation of the outbreak, which has been documented and studied by scientists from UH and the U.S. Geological Survey at several locations along the North Shore .

On this trip, Runyon will focus her attention on Kauai’s south- and east-facing shores, where local biologist Terry Lilley believes the disease has begun infecting large mound and lobe corals.

“It only makes sense to do islandwide surveys,” Runyon said. “We haven’t established baselines on that side. We don’t know what’s going on (there).”

Runyon will spend 12 days surveying and collecting tissue samples of any coral colonies that appear to be infected by the bacterial disease.

“We’re definitely looking forward to getting over there and getting our heads in the water,” she said.

Runyon and her small team will also spend a portion of the trip resurveying Anini reef, one of the main sites Dr. Greta Aeby, a coral expert with UH’s Institute of Marine Biology, and Dr. Thierry Work, head of infectious disease for USGS, have been visiting since September 2012.

The outbreak, first reported by Lilley, was originally thought to be exclusive to the common rice coral. However, in April, Dr. Thierry Work, head of infectious disease for USGS, made a return trip to Kauai and later confirmed blue rice corals — another species of Montipora — were suffering from lesions.

Now, Lilley says a disease — which appears to be the same as what’s present on the North Shore — has struck the island’s South Shore.

“It’s plastered all over Salt Pond,” he said.

Lilley said some of the infected corals, which he has documented using an underwater video camera, are the size of a mini van and hundreds of years old.

“This is really a bad step backwards,” he said.

Runyon said UH was able to secure funding through its Sea Grant College Program, which will supplement her trips to Kauai over a two-year period.

“We do have multiple trips planned around seasonality and availability,” she said.

Since its discovery, the outbreak has continued to raise questions about possible causes, including land-based pollution.

“Rice corals in North Kauai continue to manifest tissue loss associated with filamentous bacteria on a scale not seen elsewhere in Hawaii,” Work wrote in a May diagnostic report. “The environmental drivers promoting this process are complex and poorly understood. So while additional research to better understand this phenomenon continues, our best short-term management option may be to improve environmental conditions on reefs to maximize the chances that corals can successfully reproduce and recover from such disease events.”

Like Work, Runyon said it is time for the public to pay closer attention to what is happening t marine ecosystems.

“Our decline in our reefs globally is getting scary,” she said.

• Chris D’Angelo, environmental reporter, can be reached at 245-0441 or cdangelo@thegardenisland.com.

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