Plastic Waste Spreads Disease to Coral Reefs: Scientists

A scuba diver checking coral reefs in the Red Sea off the southern Israeli resort city of Eilat

Ocean plastic waste is making coral reefs vulnerable to disease

Dr. Lamb is now a NatureNet Fellow at Cornell University with The Nature Conservancy and holds a PhD in Tropical Marine Ecology and Fisheries Biology from James Cook University in Australia.

More than 11 billion pieces of plastic are stuck in coral reefs across the Asia-Pacific region, according to an alarming new study. Every year, millions of tons of waste end up in the oceans, where they remain indefinitely.

But Lamb says they found that corals within yards of each other showed a noticeable difference: those with plastic were much more likely to be diseased.

Over the years, Dr. Lamb, who is now a professor at Cornell, and her collaborators assembled a formidable database of plastic pollution on 159 reefs in Australia, Indonesia, Myanmar and Thailand.

Coral reefs are already being assailed by catastrophic "bleaching" events along with over-fishing and attacks by ravenous starfish but now man-made plastics are being highlighted as threat because they can introduce disease into the delicate eco-systems. These reefs provide the US around $375 billion in goods and services through fisheries, tourism, and coastal protection, and when you consider that 80 percent of this debris originates on land, curbing the problem is very much in our power.

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

Lamb said the good news in light of the findings published in Science is plastic pollution is something that can be more easily dealt with in the short term than numerous other problems, by helping countries in Southeast Asia reduce the amount of plastic garbage going into the ocean. A 2017 study found that 83% of tap water samples taken around the world contained plastic pollutants.

It's no secret that the world's coral reefs are in bad shape.

Coral reefs are essential to people and wildlife for many reasons.

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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.

Plastic debris can open wounds in coral tissues, potentially letting in pathogens such as Halofolliculina corallasia, the microbe that causes skeletal eroding band disease.

"It's sad how many pieces of plastic there are in the coral reefs ...if we can start targeting those big polluters of plastic, hopefully, we can start reducing the amount that is going on to these reefs."

The study, which assessed the effect that plastic had on disease risk in 124,000 reef-building corals, found that the likelihood of disease increases from 4 percent to a whopping 89 percent when those corals come in contact with plastic.

Joleah Lamb is a research fellow at Cornell University.

Further investigations are needed to determine precisely how and why plastics make coral susceptible to different diseases.

Exactly how the plastic is causing disease is still unclear.

Lamb said the study made her more aware about plastic pollution and guilty about her own use of plastic.

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