Billions of Plastic Pieces are Infecting Coral Reefs with Diseases, Study Shows

27 January, 2018, 20:23 | Author: Grady Montgomery
  • Dr. Lamb performing reef surveys on the Great Barrier Reef Australia

While the link with disease is unknown, past studies have established that plastics provide flawless havens for microbe colonies.

"We don't know the exact mechanisms, but plastics make ideal vessels for colonizing microscopic organisms that could trigger disease if they come into contact with corals", Joleah Lamb, a marine biologist at the ARC Center of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies in Australia and lead author of the study, said in a statement.

"Our work shows that plastic pollution is killing corals", said senior author Professor Drew Harvell, an ecologist at Cornell.

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.

"There are really great studies showing how much plastic is going into the oceans and how much is floating on the surface", says Lamb, who's now a fellow at Cornell University.

The link between disease and plastic may well apply to other reefs such as in the Caribbean and off Africa, and may be harming other life on the ocean floor such as sponges or kelp, Lamb said. Scientists have found that plastic waste is a big contributor too.

Plastic debris can open wounds in coral tissues, potentially letting in pathogens such as Halofolliculina corallasia, the microbe that causes skeletal eroding band disease.

According to our projections, between 2010 and 2025 the amount of plastic debris on Australian coral reefs will increase by only about 1%, whereas for Myanmar it will nearly double.

"What's troubling about coral disease is that once the coral tissue loss occurs, it's not coming back", said Lamb.

"For example, plastic items such as those commonly made of polypropylene, like bottle caps and toothbrushes, have been shown to become heavily inhabited by bacteria that are associated with a globally devastating group of coral diseases known as white syndromes", she added. "It's like getting gangrene on your foot and there is nothing you can do to stop it from affecting your whole body".

Those stricken by plastic face an 89 per cent threat, while those free from synthetic pollution face a four per cent risk.

The number of plastic items entangled on the reefs varied immensely among the different regions we surveyed - with the lowest levels found in Australia and the highest in Indonesia.

Once corals are already infected, it is logistically hard to treat the resulting diseases.

Coral reefs are productive habitats in the middle of nutrient-poor waters, Harvell said.

They are vital to fisheries and coastal management and are now at risk due to global warming, which boosts diseases and can cause coral to bleach and die.

Based on other studies, the researchers think there are a couple of ways the plastic could be causing disease.

For the study, an global team of scientists examined more than 150 reefs in the Asia-Pacific region between 2011 and 2014, finding plastic on a third of them.



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