In March 2010 an outbreak of a disease called acute Montipora White Syndrome (MWS) was discovered affecting coral reefs in Kaneohe Bay, Oahu. Follow-up surveys found that the disease left trails of rubble in its wake. It was estimated that over 100 colonies of rice coral (Montipora capitata) died during that initial outbreak. The disease has reappeared and is killing corals in Kaneohe Bay. The current outbreak has already affected 198 colonies and a rapid response team led by Dr. Greta Aeby (HIMB) has been activated to document the outbreak. Members of the investigative team include scientists from the University of Hawaii, Hawaii Institute of Marine Biology (HIMB), and USGS National Wildlife Health Center. Members of the Eyes of the Reef Network (EOR), a program that trains community members to identify threats to Hawaii's reefs, are also being asked to report on any signs of disease from other reefs.
Corals are the very foundation of our coral reef ecosystem and are under threat from overfishing, land-based pollution and emerging coral diseases. Successive disease outbreaks with little intervening time for growth and repair of the corals are particularly damaging to reefs. Dr. Aeby's team has been studying Montipora white syndrome for the past several years and has determined that MWS is an infectious disease that only affects rice corals (Montipora sp.). Laboratory experiments suggest that Montipora White Syndrome is caused by pathogenic bacteria. Work is underway to understand environmental variables, such as increased seawater temperatures associated with climate change or land-based sources of pollution that may contribute to these recurring disease outbreaks.
Aeby observes that coral disease outbreaks were predicted to occur more frequently on reefs from chronic human stressors and global climate change, she states "it appears that these predictions are becoming a reality for the reefs of Kaneohe Bay. Fortunately for Hawaii, resource managers have taken a proactive approach to these threats and have already developed a rapid response plan for coral bleaching and disease events." Reef resources play an important role in the culture and economy of Hawaii and discovering disease cause(s) will help resource managers and scientists develop methods designed to mitigate the impact of outbreaks on Hawaii's reefs.