Billions of Plastic Pieces Litter Coral in Asia and Australia

Billions of Plastic Pieces Litter Coral in Asia and Australia

Billions of Plastic Pieces Litter Coral in Asia and Australia

Besides plastic waste damaging the corals - tiny invertebrates whose calcium carbonate skeletons build up reef structures - another threat comes from the way the detritus can carry diseases across open seas.

More than 11 billion plastics are now putting coral reefs across the Asia-Pacific at risk of becoming diseased and destroying the habitat of millions of fish species, the research said. "Disease likelihood increased 20-fold once a coral was draped in plastic".

Co-author Douglas Rader of the US Environmental Defense Fund said better management of fisheries was the best way to strengthen coral reefs to enable them to fend off man-made threats such as more plastics.

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.

Lamb said the good news in light of the findings published in Science is plastic pollution is something that can be more easily dealt with in the short term than numerous other problems, by helping countries in Southeast Asia reduce the amount of plastic garbage going into the ocean.

"Plastic debris acts like a marine motor home for microbes", said the study's lead author, Joleah Lamb, a postdoctoral research fellow at Cornell.

"We found that the chance of disease increased from four per cent to 89 per cent when corals are in contact with plastic", Lamb said.

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Whatever the mechanism by which plastic is impacting coral health, the researchers want their work to inform efforts to protect the world's reefs.

"We examined more than 120,000 corals, both plastic-free and with plastic present, on 159 reefs from Indonesia, Australia, Myanmar and Thailand", said lead researcher Joleah Lamb, a postdoctoral research fellow at Cornell University in NY. Those near Indonesia were the most heavily polluted, while Australian reefs were covered in the least plastic. Stress caused by the presence of plastic debris also makes it more hard for corals to fight off pathogens.

There is a huge disparity between global estimates of plastic waste entering the oceans and the amount that washes up on beaches or is found floating on the surface.

Not only do coral reefs contain incredible biodiversity but they are also effective wave-breakers, a feature that will become increasingly important to coastal communities as oceans rise and storms become more frequent with climate change. Turtles and fish can mistakenly eat plastic debris and it's estimated that more than 1 million seabirds die each year from ocean pollution and ingestion or entanglement.

Furthermore, the authors also predict that the number of plastic items entangled in coral reefs in the Asia-Pacific could increase to a staggering 15.7 billion by 2025. It was the idea of a graduate student, Joleah Lamb.

Exactly how the plastic is causing disease is still unclear. Plastics can also block the light, making corals more susceptible to a darkness-loving disease called black band.

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