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.” According to Ed Yong, reporting for the Atlantic, a new study highlights the distressing magnitude of yet another threat to coral reefs: plastics. 

The study was published in the journal Science. Researchers analyzed more than 124,000 corals from 159 reefs. The reefs were in Myanmar, Thailand, Indonesia and Australia. And nearly 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, 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 ensnared in coral reefs in the Asia-Pacific, a number they believe will increase by 40 percent by 2025. 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.

Further investigations are needed to determine precisely how and why plastics make coral susceptible 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 at Cornell and 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, which support “more species per unit area than any other marine environment,” according to the NOAA. Reefs also protect coastlines from waves and tropical storms. They support both local and international fishing industries and 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 concentration of plastic trash, while reefs near Australia had the lowest. This could be because Australia boasts the best waste removal system—and 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 (7)
  • KylieF-dec
    3/12/2018 - 11:18 a.m.

    Plastic pollution is very harmful to coral reefs. Why, you may ask, well lets find out. In the passage it states that the plastic cut open the coral reefs and exposes them to pathogens in the ocean. So basically its like getting a cut and rubbing salt on it. In conclusion that is why plastic pollution hurts coral reefs.

  • MichaylaG-smi
    3/14/2018 - 05:46 p.m.

    I learned that we need to recycle more to keep the reefs safer.

  • RebekahL-dec
    3/19/2018 - 01:15 p.m.

    Pollution will eventually kill off so many precious species. The reefs have been affected by plastic pollution, which disgusts me. I want to be a marine biologist in the future and I hope to find solutions to fix this madness. The human race needs to be more affectionate towards wildlife, and certainly more careful.

  • RyanK-dec
    3/20/2018 - 09:54 a.m.

    Plastic pollution hurts coral reefs. It can hurt them by polluting the water, and the coral reefs with any kind of trash that is thrown into the water by a person, or got there by an animal. Pollution is bad for not only the coral reefs, but also for the fish in that water, and also for us humans because in some of those waters we swim in. In conclusion it is a very bad,unplesent thing to do to us, and fish, and the waters and the coral reefs.

  • IzzyR-dec
    3/23/2018 - 01:00 p.m.

    People like this make me upset. Because of these animals that live in the ocean, people wouldn't be alive right now. People existed after the sea animals did. If they did what they did for people to be alive, why should people treat sea animals disrespect. Throwing plastic waste into the ocean is basically poisoning the creatures that brought us to life.

  • DevinS-dec1
    3/23/2018 - 01:08 p.m.

    This plastic pollution is very harmful to our coral reefs. The reason why is that the plastic that we are putting in the water will cut open the reefs and it exposes them to deadly diseases. I hope in the future that we figure out a solution to this terrible problem.

  • SavannahS-par1
    4/09/2018 - 09:47 a.m.

    I think we need more efficient ways to clean up our water and coral reefs. Plastic harms the reefs and without them ,negative outcomes for not only the oceans but for us will occur.This article was very informative and interesting .It helped me see how bad the plastic pollution really is.

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