Billions of pieces of plastic spread disease in coral reefs
It’s no secret. The world’s coral reefs are in bad shape. Climate change has led to coral bleaching. It is widespread. Overfishing has disrupted the ecosystems. Those ecosystems keep reefs healthy.
Toxic runoffs from human industry are destroying reefs. They are sometimes called “rainforests of the sea.” A new study has highlighted the distressing scope of yet another threat to coral reefs. That threat is plastic. That's according to Ed Yong. He was reporting for the Atlantic.
The study was published in the journal Science. Researchers analyzed more than 124,000 corals. They were from 159 reefs. The reefs were in Myanmar. They were in Thailand. They were in Indonesia. And they were in Australia. They saw bits of plastics almost everywhere they looked.
“We came across chairs. Chip wrappers. Q-tips. Garbage bags. Water bottles. Old nappies.” That's according to Joleah Lamb. She is a marine disease ecologist. She works at Cornell University. She is also the lead author of the study. “Everything you see on the beach is probably lying on the reef.”
The team estimates that at least 11 billion plastic items are stuck in coral reefs. The reefs are in the Asia-Pacific. And they believe that number will go up by 40 percent. This could happen by 2025. This could spell disaster for the world’s reefs. The team found that the likelihood of the corals developing a disease jumps from four to 89 percent. This would happen when corals come into contact with plastics.
Further studies are needed to find exactly how and why plastics make coral open to different diseases. But scientist have a general idea. It seems that plastic debris slices open the skin of the corals. This exposes them to pathogens.
“Plastic debris can cause physical injury. It can also create abrasion to coral tissues. It does so by facilitating invasion of pathogens or by exhausting resources for immune system function during wound-healing processes,” the authors of the study write.
Drew Harvell is a professor. He teaches marine ecology. He works at Cornell. He is co-author of the study. He tells Darryl Fears of the Washington Post that plastics also “shade the light coral needs and cut off water flow.”
It is vital to preserve the health of coral reefs. This is for a number of reasons. For one, many marine creatures make their homes within the reefs. The reefs support “more species per unit area than any other marine environment.” That's according to the NOAA. Reefs also protect coastlines. They protect them from waves. And they protect them from tropical storms. Reefs also support both local and international fishing industries. Reefs also make billions of dollars for the worldwide tourism industry every year.
Scientists involved in the new study noticed something throughout the course of their research. The plastics problem was not evenly distributed. Reefs near Indonesia had the highest amount of plastic trash. But reefs near Australia had the lowest. This could be because Australia boasts the best waste removal system. It suggests that there is most likely an easy fix to the issue.
“We can clean up the problem,” Harvell told Fears. “It’s so much easier than climate change.”