Plastic Pollution Is Sickening World’s Coral Reefs, Study Finds

The world’s coral reefs are being sickened by plastic and micro-plastic pollution and debris — everywhere from the Great Barrier Reef to the Caribbean — according to a new study published in the journal Science.

The new study reports that in the Asia-Pacific region alone, at least 11.1 billion visible plastic items — everything from fishing nets and line, to shopping bags, to diapers — are now ensnared on coral reefs. This figure is expected to rise by 40% by 2025 without significant changes to plastics use, the researchers predict.

What’s perhaps not intuitive to some people is that these plastic items greatly increase the risk of disease — by around 20 times over on average — for corals, and many other reef animals as well.

In other words, they add to the health burden that rising ocean temperatures, ocean acidification, and other forms of pollution are putting on coral reefs.

When taken altogether, it’s effectively the case that coral reefs are now having the wastes of the human and industrial worlds dumped on them; as well as the accumulated and condensed wastes and dead bodies of hundreds of millions of years of sea life dumped on them as well (plastics and synthetic fertilizers).

It’s no wonder they are now experiencing significant health problems.

To elaborate on the effect that plastics are having on the health of coral reefs, I’ll let Reuters explain a bit more here: “The plastic increases the likelihood of disease about 20 times, to 89% for corals in contact with plastics from 4% in comparable areas with none.”

“Trash may damage the tiny coral animals that build reefs, making them more vulnerable to illness. And bits of plastic may act as rafts for harmful microbes in the oceans.”

Not all that surprising, all things considered. Something else to note here is that the prevalence of various viruses (often linked to industrial farm waste in some areas, and often linked to pet wastes in others) in ocean water has been increasing rapidly in recent years as industrial farming and pet ownership rates have both surged.

This is true in many coral reefs, where the effect these elevated levels of viruses are having on animal health remains an unknown. Such viruses, of course, likely have an easier time hitching a ride on a plastic bottle then they do on a piece of driftwood, as is also the case with many other microbes.

Elaborating further on the extent of plastics in some coral reefs, the lead author of the new study — Joleah Lamb of Cornell University — told Reuters that: “You could be diving and you think someone’s tapping your shoulder but it’s just a bottle knocking against you, or a plastic trash bag stuck on your tank. It’s really sad.”

“Corals are animals like us and have really thin tissues that can be cut and wounded, especially if they are cut by an item covered in all sorts of micro-organisms,” she continued.

A good point to make — the plastics themselves make for a good means of opening entry points for microbes to then follow into reef animals.

The Reuters coverage continues:

“The scientists, from the United States, Australia, Thailand, Myanmar, Canada and Indonesia, surveyed 159 reefs from 2011-14 in the Asia-Pacific region. They found (the) most plastic in Indonesia, with about 26 bits per 100 square meters (1076 square feet) of reef, and least off Australia, which has the strictest waste controls.”

“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.”

“At least 275 million people worldwide live near reefs, which provide food, coastal protection and income from tourism. The presence of plastics seemed especially to aggravate some common coral afflictions, such as skeletal eroding band disease.”

The basic takeaway of the work, according to the researchers, is that stricter regulations on the use of plastics and on waste management are needed.

While there’s been a fair amount of talk as of late relating to such actions, they primary relate to goals stretched out a decade or more into the future. Immediate action is what’s needed if damage is to be limited.

That’s of course where the personal element comes into this. One always has the choice to greatly reduce their consumption levels, to choose bulk options packaged only with paper or cardboard where possible, to cease the use of plastic bags, and to grow some of their own food, for example.

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