New Research Discovers Plastic Is Playing A Huge Part In Killing Coral Reefs

Plastic has been found to be a direct contributor to coral diseases. Photo via Dr. Kathryn Berry

Plastic and trash is choking our ocean and the mass public is aware of it. Unfortunately, being aware of an issue does not always mean taking steps to solving it. Now, through years of data collection, researchers have been able to put together a database of plastic pollution on 159 reefs in Australia, Indonesia, Myanmar and Thailand.

In a journal entry for Science, a team of researchers led by Dr. Lamb discussed how their research has led them to discover that billions of pieces of plastic are sickening corals in the Asia-Pacific region, threatening ecosystems and economic growth from Australia to China. The estimate is that more than 11 billion pieces of plastic larger than 5 centimeters are littered throughout the reef.

Dr. Lamb and the team obtained their research from 12,000 square meters of reef and noticed that countries who are known to have particularly poor methods of dealing with plastic pollution had the most plastic on corals. Australian corals suffered the least amount of plastic pollution while the worst was in Indonesia

Based on how much plastic that humans are dumping into the oceans annually, the researchers estimated that the total number would rise to 15.7 billion items by 2025.

If coral didn’t have it bad enough, the researchers discovered that coral with plastic on them were 20 times more likely to be diseased than those that were not polluted. Normally, around 4 percent of corals are fighting a disease, said Lamb. But where she and her study co-authors found plastic, corals were likely to be sick 89 percent of the time.

There are several reasons why plastic leads to a higher rate of sick coral. To start with, plastic in the ocean is a magnet for bacteria, including some implicated in coral diseases. Polypropylene, which is used in numerous products like bottle caps and toothpaste tubes, is an attractant for the Vibrio group of bacteria, which are responsible for one set of coral illnesses.

On top of that, plastic adds weight to bacteria, making them more likely to fall to the seafloor and land on a reef. Once the plastic lands on the coral, they can would it and making it easier for infections. Plastics can also block the light, making corals more susceptible to a darkness-loving disease called black band.

Still there is a silver lining to the discoveries. If humankind can reduce the amount of plastic in the seas, the corals have a much better chance of surviving. Countries that focus on keeping plastic from entering the ocean see a much lower level of plastic on its reef, which results in a healthier reef.

Lamb hoped her work would inspire people to use paper bags at the grocery store, potato starch bags for trash, reusable bottles for water, and take other measures. “The individual can make a conscious effort to reduce the amount of plastic we consume,” she said.

Helping those countries manage their pollution, “can also reduce the amount of plastics we’re finding on the reefs there,” Dr. Lamb said.

As governments focus on battling climate change, a heavy focus needs to be put on the ban of single use plastics and ways to keep it out of the ocean.

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