Oceanic plastic trash conveys disease to coral reefs

Submerged plastic can sicken coral

We've known that our planet's coral reefs were dying, an ecological tragedy that came to a head last spring when it was widely reported that Australia's Great Barrier Reef was mostly dead, and likely not salvageable.

The researchers, from James Cook University in Australia, found plastic on one-third of the reefs they surveyed in the region.

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. Bacterial pathogens ride aboard the plastics, disturbing delicate coral tissues and their microbiome. "That equates to an estimated 15.7 billion plastic items on coral reefs across the Asia-Pacific by 2025", she said.

The plastic may stress the corals by blocking light and oxygen from reaching them or cut into the coral's flesh or rub against it, creating a wound that bacteria can get in.

In order to assess how much plastic there is in the reefs, worldwide researchers surveyed more than 150 reefs for four years (from 2011 to 2014).

Lamb and colleagues surveyed 159 coral reefs from Indonesia, Australia, Myanmar and Thailand, visually examining almost 125,000 reef-building corals for tissue loss and disease lesions.

While it might not be immediately clear how this pollution epidemic affects us here on land, our economy relies on those reefs considerably. Coral reefs are responsible for yearly $375 billion in goods and services related to fishing, tourism, and coastal protection.

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"Plastic waste can promote microbial colonization by pathogens implicated in outbreaks of disease in the ocean", the researchers write. "Our study indicates 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 likelihood of disease increases from four percent to 89 percent when corals are in contact with plastic", researchers report in the journal Science.

With coral reefs already under pressure from climate change and mass bleaching events, our findings reveal another significant threat to the world's corals and the ecosystems and livelihoods they support.

But Lamb found a different environment in Southeast Asia, home to some of the world's most diverse and lovely coral reefs.

"Any compromise like that is going to make creatures more susceptible to the risks of other diseases". It was the idea of a graduate student, Joleah Lamb. "Our study adds plastic waste to that ever growing list".

Exactly how the plastic is causing disease is still unclear.

"We know that plastics are widespread in the ocean, and it's no surprise to me that corals are encountering them", said Professor Richard Thompson, a marine biologist at the University of Plymouth who was not involved in the study.

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