HONOLULU (HawaiiNewsNow) - Look beneath the surface of Kauai's north shore and you'll see what marine biologists are calling an epidemic.
Video taken from Anini on Kauai's northeast coast shows coral covered with white bacteria, which is deteriorating much of the reef.
"The disease is a tissue-loss disease," said USGS Wildlife Disease Specialist Thierry Work. "If you look at these corals, they are losing tissues and we think it's associated with a cyanobacteria, which is a type of algae that is eating the coral basically."
Marine biologist Terry Lilley started documenting the disease when he noticed how quickly it was spreading.
" I went all over the north shore to over 60 different dive sites within 30 days," Lilley said. "Everywhere we went on the north shore, this disease had already killed a lion's share of the reef."
The USGS estimates that about six percent of Kauai's reef has been infected. Before scientists can figure out a cure, they need to find what is causing it.
A team of researchers will start that process by collecting samples off Kauai later this month.
They head into this mission with some experience from a 2010 outbreak from a different pathogen in Kaneohe Bay.
"The disease outbreaks are the final straw that will break the camel's back," said Greta Abey, a researcher with the Hawaii Institute of Marine Biology. "These coral reefs have been overused for how many decades now? Over fished for how many decades? They are at the tipping point and they are starting to tip down and that is really alarming."
Since 2009, outbreaks have also been found on Maui and the Northwestern Hawaiian islands.
A NOAA study once valued Hawaii's reefs at more than $33 billion dollars.
Much to lose if scientists don't solve this microscopic problem.
"You are going to start to lose your fisheries and not to mention the tourist issue here," Abey said. "Economically, it is critical for the state of Hawaii to maintain the coral reef resources in a healthy state."