Researchers are warning that an aggressive algae species recently discovered in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands may eventually threaten coral reefs and sea life throughout Hawaii.

The algae, dubbed Chondria tumulusa, was first spotted during a routine 2016 survey at Pearl and Hermes Atoll, part of Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument.

By 2019, the algae had “covered large expanses on the northeast side of the atoll with mat-like, extensive growth,” smothering much of the coral in the area, according to a study published Tuesday in the journal PLOS ONE.

algae Northwest Hawaiian Islands
Researchers have discovered a new species of algae that’s swiftly and aggressively spreading in Papahanaumakuakea Marine National Monument. Courtesy: NOAA/National Marine Sanctuaries

“This seaweed has the potential to significantly alter the pristine reef ecological structure at this remote atoll and throughout the Hawaiian archipelago if or when it spreads to other islands and atolls,” the report stated.

So far, researchers are classifying the red algae as a “nuisance” species — not an invasive one — because they haven’t confirmed that it was introduced from another region, according to a University of Hawaii Manoa press release.

They plan to conduct mapping of the algae’s spread and develop”mitigation strategies” to help manage it, the release further stated.

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