11 billion pieces of plastic bring disease threat to coral reefs

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      Plastic wraps around a spawning coral.      Credit Lalita Putchim

An worldwide research group led by Cornell University has found that plastic trash - ubiquitous throughout the world's oceans - intensifies disease for coral, adding to reef peril, according to a new study in the journal Science, Jan. 26.

They found that when plastic was in contact with coral, the chance that it also showed signs of disease increased by a factor of more than 20 compared to coral that was plastic-free.

'That equates to an estimated 15.7 billion plastic items on coral reefs across the Asia-Pacific by 2025, ' said Joleah Lamb, who led the study. "Plastic debris can cause physical injury and abrasion to coral tissues by facilitating invasion of pathogens or by exhausting resources for immune system function during wound-healing processes", the authors of the study write.

"This study demonstrates that reductions in the amount of plastic waste entering the ocean will have direct benefits to coral reefs by reducing disease-associated mortality", Lamb said.

They found most plastic in Indonesia, with about 26 bits per 100 square metres of reef, and least off Australia, which has the strictest waste controls.

Tea bags, plastic bags, fishing nets, and diapers are among the billions of pieces of plastic suffocating the fish and coral reefs in the Asia-Pacific region, new research reveals.

"So moderating disease outbreak risks in the ocean will be vital for improving both human and ecosystem health", Willis said.

A new study based on four years of diving on 159 reefs in the Pacific shows that reefs in four countries - Australia, Thailand, Indonesia and Myanmar - are heavily contaminated with plastic. These reefs provide the USA around $375 billion in goods and services through fisheries, tourism, and coastal protection, and when you consider that 80 percent of this debris originates on land, curbing the problem is very much in our power.

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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. Plastic pollution simply exacerbates these threats.

In their survey of about 12,000 square meters of reef, the researchers noticed that countries that are known to have particularly poor methods of dealing with plastic pollution had the most plastic on corals.

Exactly how the plastic is causing disease is still unclear. For example, the United Kingdom recently implemented its first "Seabin" to extract oil, plastic, and other debris from Portsmouth harbor, while the city of Rotterdam has been using an aquatic drone known as the "waste shark".

Corals have a symbiotic relationship with a tiny marine algae called "zooxanthellae" that live inside and nourish them.

Joleah Lamb is a research fellow at Cornell University.

Dr Lamb said the problem of plastic waste looks to be getting worse.

One coral blight that does appear to be exacerbated by plastic is skeletal eroding band disease.

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