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Coral reefs face heightened risk of fatal disease from dredging, says research

 

Coral White Syndrome Disease

White syndrome disease effectively destroys coral. Photograph: F. Joseph Pollack

 

Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article titled “Coral reefs face heightened risk of fatal disease from dredging, says research” was written by Oliver Milman, for theguardian.com on Wednesday 16th July 2014 18.09 UTC

Coral faces a heightened risk of fatal disease if the seabed near it is dug up, according to a landmark study that will reignite the debate over whether dredging projects near the Great Barrier Reef should take place.

The research, conducted by the ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies and the Australian Institute of Marine Science, found that dredging near coral reefs doubled the frequency of diseases afflicting corals.

The study, the first of its kind to directly address the issue of dredging and coral health, is likely to raise further questions over whether a plan to dredge 3m cubic metres of seabed and dump it within the Great Barrier Reef marine park is a wise one.

Coral White Syndrome Disease

White syndrome coral disease. Photograph: F Joseph Pollack

Analysis of corals subjected to plumes of seabed sediment found that they were two times as likely to suffer a myriad of different diseases, compared with those untouched by dredging. Worryingly, these affected corals were most likely to suffer from “white syndrome”, a condition that effectively destroys them.

“White syndrome is like if your flesh fell off at the fingertips leaving just bone, and then kept going on up your arms and then the rest of your body,” Joe Pollock, lead author of the study, told Guardian Australia.

“When you have bleaching events, which cause the corals to go white, you can still get some recovery there because the coral is still alive. But with white syndrome the tissue is completely gone and it won’t recover at all.”

Researchers studied the progress of an 18-month dredging project near Barrow Island, a previously pristine area off the Western Australian coast. The dredging involved the removal of 7m cubic metres of seabed to create a channel to accommodate ships for the Gorgon natural gas project.

Using satellite imagery, researchers could map the areas of coral covered by plumes of sediment released by the dredging process. They found there was a “direct link” between coral disease and sediment.

Sediment Plumes from Dredging

Dredging study map showing sediment plumes. Photograph: F Joseph Pollack

 

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