Question & Answers with a Fijian Scientist

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An interview with the WCS Marine Scientist, Yashika Nand
Interview by Dwain Qalovaki

Q. What got you interested in coral disease?
Nand: In 2012, I conducted a “Training of Trainers” workshop for community leaders and conservation partners on “Reef Resilience”. Coral disease was a minor component of that training as an emerging threat to reef ecosystems. The interest and concerns raised by community representatives on coral disease got me interested in the topic. After doing a literature search on global impacts of coral disease, and reading about the challenges in identifying the causes and environmental dynamics associated with pathogens, I was determined to join the group of coral disease researchers.

With limited information in Fiji on coral disease and no known expertise, I was challenged but was glad WCS Fiji Director Dr. Stacy Jupiter introduced me to Professor John Bythell, who is keen scientist specializing in coral disease.

Equipped with a supervisor like Professor Bythell and advisor like Dr. Jupiter, I couldn’t stop myself from starting a Masters program at the University of the South Pacific (USP). Later Dr. Joeli Veitayaki (USP) and Dr. Cara Miller from the Whales and Dolphins Conservation Society joined my journey of discovery to understand coral diseases in Fiji by agreeing to be my co-supervisors.

Q. What is the focus of your Masters research in relation to coral disease?
Nand: I am looking at the general distribution and prevalence of coral disease in Fiji. My research is likely to be the first baseline study on coral disease for the country but I will also be focusing on the progression rates of one specific coral disease referred to as the “White Syndrome” in the Western Pacific Region.

A similar condition referred to as “White Plague I & II” in the Caribbean caused more than 80% coral mortality; hence it’s considered a serious threat to reef ecosystems. My research will also assess temporal changes over hot (November – April) and cold (May-October) months in Fiji over a year.

Q. Has anything unexpected come up during your research so far?
Nand: Currently, a lot of anomalies observed in corals with very high prevalence in some areas and patchy distribution of disease in other areas. There are a few corals that are more vulnerable to certain types of disease. I expected more coral disease in areas closer to the coastline but to my surprise in some cases I found more disease on outer reefs further from the land.

Q. What are the major ecosystem threats that you are beginning to notice at your research site?
Nand: Influx of nutrients and freshwater especially for Leleuvia Island that is causing more stress to corals in the area. Moreover, the sudden change in water temperature makes it difficult for corals to adapt. I have seen evidence for this in the months of December 2013 – February 2014, where warm waters caused coral bleaching in many places around Fiji including the Yasawa Islands.

Under these conditions, corals immune system weaken and pathogens such as bacteria, ciliates, and fungi present in the water column take advantage and invade corals causing different types of disease. Some are extremely detrimental to the health of corals.

Other threats include predation which causes coral mortality. Organisms like Crown-of-Thorns starfish (COTS), Drupella snails, and some marine worms have the potential to kill a whole colony. Cyclone damage can also affect reef systems, fragmenting and killing fast growing corals.

Q. Going forward, how can we slow, stop or reverse these effects?
Nand: I am still analysing videos that I collected from September 2013 to February 2014 so some of these questions will be answered later on in my Masters. Researchers in the Caribbean, Australia and Hawaii are also looking for answers to these same questions.

Q. Do you have any advice for Fijian or Pacific Island scientists who want to get more involved in coral disease research?
Nand: Try to collect data on coral disease. Taking photos/videos of reefs that show signs of disease can help us understand where and how disease spreads within reef systems. Pacific Islands are so scattered that it is really difficult to collect data so most predictions on outbreaks of coral disease or other stressors on reefs are made based on data from easily accessible places – this does not give a good representation of reef health in the region.

I think coral disease is a challenging yet important and interesting area of research that may grow in prevalence if we do not better manage our reefs, or with the growing stressors associated with climate change.

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