CORVALLIS, Ore. One of the largest and longest experiments ever done to test the impact of nutrient loading on coral reefs today confirmed what scientists have long suspected that this type of pollution from sewage, agricultural practices or other sources can lead to coral disease and bleaching.
A three-year, controlled exposure of corals to elevated levels of nitrogen and phosphorus at a study site in the Florida Keys, done from 2009-12, showed that the prevalence of disease doubled and the amount of coral bleaching, an early sign of stress, more than tripled.
However, the study also found that once the injection of pollutants was stopped, the corals were able to recover in a surprisingly short time.
"We were shocked to see the rapid increase in disease and bleaching from a level of pollution that's fairly common in areas affected by sewage discharge, or fertilizers from agricultural or urban use," said Rebecca Vega-Thurber, an assistant professor in the College of Science at Oregon State University.
"But what was even more surprising is that corals were able to make a strong recovery within 10 months after the nutrient enrichment was stopped," Vega-Thurber said. "The problems disappeared. This provides real evidence that not only can nutrient overload cause coral problems, but programs to reduce or eliminate this pollution should help restore coral health. This is actually very good news."
The findings were published today in Global Change Biology, and offer a glimmer of hope for addressing at least some of the problems that have crippled coral reefs around the world. In the Caribbean Sea, more than 80 percent of the corals have disappeared in recent decades. These reefs, which host thousands of species of fish and other marine life, are a major component of biodiversity in the tropics.
Researchers have observed for years the decline in coral reef health where sewage outflows or use of fertilizers
|Contact: Rebecca Vega-Thurber|
Oregon State University