Natural incidences of disease among scleractinian corals are unknown, since most studies have been initiated in response to specific disease outbreaks. Our ability to distinguish elevated disease incidences influenced by anthropogenic and climatic factors is limited since current estimates are probably inflated for extrapolation to larger areas. In our study, we used quantitative assessment methods to characterize the distribution and frequency of scleractinian and gorgonian coral diseases in the south Florida region. This paper is the first in a series that will detail different aspects of our studies. In this paper, we examined the strategy and methodology developed over 2 years to optimize the experimental design of our study, Pilot surveys were conducted in 1997 to develop and test methods, select and determine suitability of sites, and obtain preliminary data to assess the variance and efficiency of the sampling design. Survey periods targeted late spring, the time when coral diseases are believed to emerge, and late summer, the time when coral diseases are believed to be most prevalent, Two strata were chosen to evaluate patterns of coral disease: the first, geographic area, consisted of reefs in the vicinity of Key West, New Grounds and the Dry Tortugas; and the second, reef type, consisted of back, fore and transitional reefs, Random radial are transects (10 m diameter) were used to quantify 10 diseases affecting 18 species of stony corals and gorgonian sea fans over a large geographical region. During the pilot survey, we demonstrated that the outer 8-10 m segment (113 m 2) was an adequate sampling area. The survey implemented important quality assurance measures for data quality control. Power analysis determined that future studies should adopt alpha=0.10, beta=0.0383, and 1 - beta = 0.9617 in our experimental design. The highest prevalence of disease in our study was during the 1997 summer survey, with a mean percent coral disease (MPCD) of 28% occurring at Key West area reefs, or 55% of all back reef stations. Our results do not show a clear pattern of seasonality in coral diseases within either stratum, although differences in disease distribution between reef types and geographic areas were apparent in some of the spring and summer surveys.
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