Plastic waste threatens coral reefs

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The study, which assessed the effect that plastic had on disease risk in 124,000 reef-building corals, found that the likelihood of disease increases from 4 percent to a whopping 89 percent when those corals come in contact with plastic.

"It's sad how many pieces of plastic there are in the coral reefs ...if we can start targeting those big polluters of plastic, hopefully, we can start reducing the amount that is going on to these reefs". And that number is expected to rise 40% within the next 7 years.

A survey of 150 reefs found plastic was a common pollutant.

Depriving them of these could also make corals more susceptible to infection by harmful microbes, known as pathogens.

"More than 275 million people rely upon coral reefs for food, coastal protection, tourism income and cultural significance", she said.

"So the plastic sitting on top of the coral can cause these micro-climates that are really wonderful for these types of bacteria to proliferate". In so doing, we collected one of the most extensive datasets of coral health in this region and plastic waste levels on coral reefs globally.

Now, as Ed Yong reports for the Atlantic, a new study has highlighted the distressing magnitude of yet another threat to coral reefs: plastics.

Plastic litter in a fishing village in Myanmar. Image Kathryn Berry
Plastic litter in a fishing village in Myanmar. Image Kathryn Berry

Structurally complex corals are eight times more likely to be affected by plastic, particularly branching and tabular species.

In the study, published in the journal Science, global researchers surveyed more than 150 reefs from four countries in the Asia-Pacific region between 2011 and 2014.

Kelly, now a PhD student at Carleton University in Ottawa, participated in the Australian surveys while doing her master's degree at James Cooke University in Townsville, Queensland: "I didn't mind one bit". Reefs near Indonesia had the highest concentration of plastic trash, while reefs near Australia had the lowest. Thailand and Myanmar were in the middle. The greater the amount of plastic that was present, the more evidence they found of disease.

But Lamb found a different environment in Southeast Asia, home to some of the world's most diverse and attractive coral reefs. According to JCU scholar Bette Willis, the bleaching is expected to increase with the warming of sea water.

In the case of diseases, organisms attack coral, leading to likely death. Bacterial pathogens ride aboard the plastics, disturbing delicate coral tissues and their microbiome.

In the Asia-Pacific region a total of 11.1 billion plastic items - including shopping bags, fishing nets, even diapers and tea-bags - are ensnared on reefs, the scientists wrote in the journal Science.

A similar study conducted by Roland Geyer, Jenna Jambeck, Kara Lavender Law says over 8 million tonnes of plastic is dumped into the oceans every year and predicts there will be more disposable items than fish by 2050.

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