Published: Sat, January 27, 2018
Sci-tech | By Eric Barnett

Billions of pieces of plastic trash are sickening the world's coral reefs

Billions of pieces of plastic trash are sickening the world's coral reefs

Drew Harvell, a professor of marine ecology at Cornell and a co-author of the study, tells Darryl Fears of the Washington Post that plastics also "shade the light coral needs and cut off water flow".

"Plastic waste can promote microbial colonization by pathogens implicated in outbreaks of disease in the ocean", the researchers write.

Photo Spawning coral wrapped in plastic, which can harm the corals in many ways, including by being a magnet for harmful bacterial.

"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.

"It's certainly well known that plastics abrade corals, create new openings", she says. In so doing, we collected one of the most extensive datasets of coral health in this region and plastic waste levels on coral reefs globally. Stress caused by the presence of plastic debris also makes it more hard for corals to fight off pathogens.

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

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"It's like getting gangrene on your foot and there is nothing you can do to stop it from affecting your whole body", she said. In December (2017), nearly 200 nations agreed to limit plastic pollution of the oceans, warning that it could outweigh all fish by 2030.

Plastics make corals sick. That's just the plastics that are already on the reefs, and doesn't account for free-floating plastics that have a good chance of being caught up in the future.

The study, which was led by Joleah Lamb of Cornell University, is the culmination of years of surveying dozens and dozens of coral reefs. This could spell disaster for the world's reefs; the team found that when corals come into contact with plastics, the likelihood of the corals developing a disease jumps from four to 89 percent. She also examined whether existing coral reef management strategies are effective for mitigating marine diseases, such as the use of marine protected areas. 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. "Our study adds plastic waste to that ever growing list".

This bleached states can last for up to six weeks, and while corals can recover if the temperature drops and the algae return, severely bleached corals die, and become covered by algae.

However, he noted that while plastic could present an extra challenge and may be linked with an increase in disease risk, this study does not show that plastics are carrying pathogens into the reefs.

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.

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