Billions of pieces of plastic spread disease in coral reefs A new study has highlighted the scope of plastic pollution. (WhitcombeRD via iStock/USAID Indonesia/Flickr)
Billions of pieces of plastic spread disease in coral reefs
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It’s no secret that the world’s coral reefs are in bad shape. Climate change has led to widespread coral bleaching. Overfishing has disrupted the ecosystems that keep reefs healthy. 

Toxic runoffs from human industry are destroying the so-called “rainforests of the sea.” A new study has highlighted the distressing scope of yet another threat to coral reefs: plastics. That's according to Ed Yong, reporting for the Atlantic. 

The study was published in the journal Science. Researchers analyzed more than 124,000 corals from 159 reefs. The reefs were in Myanmar and Thailand. They were also in Indonesia and Australia. Almost everywhere they looked, they saw bits of plastic.

“We came across chairs, chip wrappers, Q-tips, garbage bags, water bottles, old nappies,” said Joleah Lamb. She is a marine disease ecologist 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 trapped in coral reefs in the Asia-Pacific. And they believe that number will increase by 40 percent 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 when corals come into contact with plastics.

Further investigations are needed to determine precisely how and why plastics make coral open to different diseases. But generally speaking, it seems that plastic debris slices open the skin of the corals. This exposes them to pathogens. 

“Plastic debris can cause physical injury and 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 of 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 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 from waves and tropical storms. They support both local and international fishing industries. They also generate billions of dollars for the worldwide tourism industry every year.

Throughout the course of their research, scientists involved in the new study noticed that the plastics problem was not evenly distributed. Reefs near Indonesia had the highest amount of plastic trash, while reefs near Australia had the lowest. This could be because Australia boasts the best waste removal system. It suggests that there is a relatively easy fix to the issue.

“We can clean up the problem,” Harvell told Fears. “It’s so much easier than climate change.”

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CRITICAL THINKING QUESTION
How does plastic pollution hurt coral reefs?
Write your answers in the comments section below


COMMENTS (80)
  • Sabina-E2
    3/13/2018 - 11:01 a.m.

    I think it is awful that plastic is in the ocean,
    and sometimes I even wish that plastic didn't exist,
    because it has caused so many troubles and maybe we
    can just replace it.
    Maybe we can replace it with glass or something like
    that.

    • Maxena J-rud
      10/08/2018 - 11:40 a.m.

      Glass is more dangerous than plastic. Imagine this, you are a fish and you are living alone in a coral reef, would you rather be stabbed by glass, or be choked by plastic?

  • ethanm-orv
    3/13/2018 - 12:09 p.m.

    this is such a big issue.

  • ArwenR-dec
    3/15/2018 - 01:43 p.m.

    People don't realize that that families live in choral. They don't realize they are murdering an innocent family.
    Someone needs to come up with a way to stop this. I would do it myself, but I don't know what i would so.

    • Maxena J-rud
      10/08/2018 - 11:44 a.m.

      Maybe you could make a club, that says to stop littering and stop using so much plastic, maybe you can use the bags you get at the store, don't throw it away, put it in a container or a paper bag, and use it for things like dog poop, or put it in small trash cans!

  • MakaylaP-dec
    3/15/2018 - 01:48 p.m.

    It hurts the reefs by exposing them to different types of new diseases they've never been exposed to. It also exposes the to pathogens as well.

  • NickM-dec
    3/15/2018 - 02:02 p.m.

    I think we can help reduce the number of plastics on the reef and in the ocean if more people would recycle.

  • TaedemB-dec
    3/20/2018 - 01:17 p.m.

    Plastic can be very harmful to coral reefs because it can cut the corals tissue and cause physical injury but also can block sunlight that the coral needs to cut off water flow. Not only can these harmful plastics be dangerous to sea animals and fish. When plastic breaks down it turns into very smalls microscopic bits, plankton and krill eat these plastic pieces that they mistake for food. And meanwhile these organisms are at the bottom of the food chain and plankton and krill are eaten by tons of fish and whales which could end up poisoning them. If a whale eats too much and happens to have a calf, then her milk can get infected and when she nurses the baby whale it could get poisoned and die.

  • JohnT-dec
    3/23/2018 - 11:04 a.m.

    I think its horrible I feel bad for the fish because i would not want to live some where there is alot of plastic.

  • EmilyH-dec
    3/23/2018 - 12:57 p.m.

    People honestly make me so mad like why would you ever throw garbage into the ocean, I would just like to say that if you do end throwing something into the ocean, i hope you get caught, and whoever catches you takes whatever you threw into the ocean out. for example if you throw plastic into the ocean you will hurt the fish.

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