KANEOHE (HawaiiNewsNow) - In Kaneohe Bay the backbone of an ecosystem is under attack.
"What we're starting to see is whole clusters, ten, twenty, thirty colonies all dead in an area as the disease has passed from one to the other within the last four to five weeks," said Greta Aeby, a disease researcher with the Hawaii Institute of Marine Biology.
Acute Montipora White Syndrome -- a tissue killing disease -- has slaughtered more than 100 colonies of red rice coral around Coconut Island.
"It usually comes in as a very bright white patch on one part of the colony. That white is where it's stripped the tissue right away," Aeby said. "The problems here is that coral's a very slow-growing animal. So you're wiping out a decade's worth of growth within a couple of weeks."
Most of the damage is in the southern part of the bay where water quality's the poorest.
"Our reefs have been over-fished and had problems with land based pollution for decades.. And now I think they're finally starting to show the result of that continual stress. They create the houses the homes for the shrimp and the crabs and the little fish. If that house crumbles, there's no place for the little guys, we're going to lose the bigger guys," she said.
Aeby and other researchers have mapped the kill zones and are analyzing coral samples.
"One thing that we want to look at is what may be causing this disease. So we're using histology, we're using microbiology, we're using molecular techniques to see if this might have been caused by a bacterial infection," she said.
If they pinpoint the cause of the outbreak of Acute Montipora White Syndrome, they may be able to minimize future damage.
So far the disease has only been spotted in Kaneohe Bay.
Aeby teaches ocean users about this and other coral diseases through a program called Eyes of the Reef.