06 Feb 11 Billion Pieces of Plastic Infect Vital Coral Reefs with Mass Disease

A major new study estimates over 11 billion pieces of plastic contaminate vital reefs in the Asia-Pacific region and increase the likelihood of disease from 4% to 89%! Scientists estimate that amount of plastic entangled on coral will increase by 40% by 2025, as reported in the journal Science 

The study has shown that plastic waste in the ocean is indeed endangering our coral reefs. Corals are 20 times more likely to get diseases once draped in plastic. Plastic can engulf or cover coral organisms causing stress by blocking out light and oxygen and giving pathogens a foothold for invasion. Furthermore, plastic debris can physically cut or scratch coral tissues. This makes them susceptible to infection by exhausting resources for immune system function during wound-healing processes or by being cut by contaminated plastic pieces.

Scientists who conducted the study, led by Joleah B. Lamb from Cornell University and James Cook University, examined 125,000 corals across the Asia-Pacific region, home to half the world’s reefs, and found 89% of those with plastic were suffering disease. On plastic-free reefs, only 4% of the corals were diseased. The study only looked at visible plastic and did not factor in microplastics or plastic that has been broken down into tiny pieces and often mistaken as plankton and consumed by marine organisms.

Structurally complex corals are eight times more likely to be affected by plastic, suggesting that microhabitats for reef-associated organisms and valuable fisheries will be disproportionately affected. Plastic levels on coral reefs correspond to estimates of terrestrial mismanaged plastic waste entering the ocean.

The study noted that “decreasing the levels of plastic debris entering the ocean by improving waste management infrastructure is critical for reducing the amount of debris on coral reefs and the associated risk of disease and structural damage”.

The Coral Triangle, covering Indonesia, Malaysia, Papua New Guinea, Philippines, Solomon Islands and Timor-Leste, is unique in that it is home to 76% of all coral species in the world and over 3000 species of reef fish. These coral reefs generate $1.6 billion in revenue from fish catch and marine tourism. Over 275 million people in this region rely on healthy reefs for food, coastal protection from storms and income from tourism.

With global warming causing coral bleaching even on the most pristine reefs, corals under stress from diseases caused by plastic debris will have less chance of recovery. The scientists from the study stated, “climate-related disease outbreaks have already affected coral reefs globally and are projected to increase in frequency and severity as ocean temperatures rise”.

The urgency for each individual to consciously think about how much plastic they consume and where it goes is something everybody can do.  You can start by ensuring proper disposal of plastic waste, using refusing single use plastics, reusing plastic products and recycling them when possible. Joining awareness raising activities such as beach clean ups are also a great way to spread the word about plastic pollution.

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