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St. Croix Study Links Sewage and Coral Disease

May 24, 2005 — The raw sewage intermittently dumped into the sea around St. Croix may have a deadly effect on the island's coral life, said the author of a study linking human waste and coral disease Tuesday.
Scientists from Long Island University and the University of Puerto Rico studied coral around Frederiksted when raw sewage was released in the area in 2001. They found significantly more disease there than in Butler Bay about three miles to the north.
"It's the first study with quantitative evidence that shows a link between raw sewage and coral disease," said biologist Longin T. Kaczmarsky, who co-authored the study in the April issue of the "Caribbean Journal of Science."
"(Coral reefs are) essential habitat for millions of species of organisms. It's the rain forest of the sea," said Kaczmarsky by telephone from Miami.
In Frederiksted, where untreated sewage was regularly released during the study in 2001, nearly 30 percent of coral were infected with black-band disease and white plague. In Butler Bay, where no sewage was released, only three to four percent of coral was infected, the study said.
Only about 10 percent of sewage in the Caribbean and Central America is treated before being discharged to sea, the study said.
The Virgin Islands government has tried for more than 20 years to comply with federal orders to improve its sewage systems, paying more than $2.7 million in court fines.
Government officials have said the wastewater systems are improving, but could not immediately be reached for comment on this story.
Jack Sobel, a scientist with The Ocean Conservancy based in Washington, D.C., said coral disease isn't likely caused by sewage alone, but by human activity in general.
Reefs in the Virgin Islands have declined in the last 20 years because of multiple stressors, Sobel said. He noted there is much more human activity in Frederiksted than Butler Bay.
Reefs in Haiti and Jamaica have been devastated by fishing, which kills the small algae-eating fish that keep coral healthy, and by soil runoff, which blocks coral's access to sunlight, contributing to disease and death, he said.
In contrast, reefs in The Bahamas and some of the small islands of Belize and Colombia are relatively healthy, he said.
Hurricanes and other natural disasters also kill coral, Sobel said.

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