Study links spread of deadly coral disease to ship ballast water

This story was adapted from an article by the University of Miami Rosenstiel School of Marine, Atmospheric, and Earth Science.

Video credit: NOAA / AOML / Jackie Bloome

A new study suggests that ships may be spreading a deadly coral disease across Florida and the Caribbean. The findings may help to establish testing and treatment methods to prevent further spread.

According to lead author Micheal Studivan, an assistant scientist at the University of Miami Cooperative Institute for Marine and Atmospheric Studies (CIMAS) and NOAA’s Atlantic Oceanographic and Meteorological Laboratory (AOML), the presence of stony coral tissue loss disease, or SCTLD, has been associated with ship ballast water, where ships take in water for stability at one port and release it at another port. To test whether or not this practice has played a role in the rapid spread of SCTLD, scientists at the University of Miami Rosenstiel School and NOAA AOML conducted two disease transmission experiments at the Experimental Reef Lab (ERL). These experiments used Ultraviolet (UV) treatment of ship ballast water to see if the disease pathogens could be transported this way, and whether UV treatment of this water could prevent the spread of this disease. 

Caption: An inside peek at the University of Miami Experimental Reef Laboratory (ERL).

Read more about this groundbreaking study on the University of Miami Rosenstiel School web page.

The research study was supported by an EPA agreement, the NOAA Coral Reef Conservation Program, the NOAA OAR ‘Omics Program, the Louisiana Board of Regents Research Support Fund Research Competitiveness Subprogram, and the National Science Foundation Ecology and Evolution of Infectious Disease.

STUDIVAN, M.S., M. BAPTIST, V. Molina, S. Riley, M. First, N. SODERBERG, E. RUBIN, A. Rossin, D. Holstein, and I.C. ENOCHS. Transmission of stony coral tissue loss disease (SCTLD) in simulated ballast water confirms the potential for ship-borne spread. Scientific Reports, 12:19248 ( (2022).