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Plastic in the Oceans Increasing Risk of Disease in Coral Reefs

27 January 2018

Plastic has a range of negative effects on coral reefs. Overall, the researchers estimated 11.1 billion items are snagged or lodged in coral reefs in the Asia-Pacific region.

The researchers estimate the increased chance of infection on the reefs affected could be as high as 89 per cent, in some cases.

Millions of tons of plastic waste enter the world's oceans every year, but the impact this has on coral reefs has yet to be properly studied.

The plastic may stress the corals by blocking light and oxygen from reaching them or cut into the coral's flesh or rub against it, creating a wound that bacteria can get in. One-third of the reefs we surveyed had no derelict plastic waste, however others had up 26 pieces of plastic debris per 100 square metres.

With coral reefs already under pressure from climate change and mass bleaching events, our findings reveal another significant threat to the world's corals and the ecosystems and livelihoods they support. "This is associated with the globally devastating group of coral diseases known as white syndromes", said Dr Lamb.

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"Plastic debris acts like a marine motor home for microbes", said the study's lead author, Joleah Lamb, a postdoctoral research fellow at Cornell.

Corals have a symbiotic relationship with a tiny marine algae called "zooxanthellae" that live inside and nourish them. Now, as Ed Yong reports for the Atlantic, a new study has highlighted the distressing magnitude of yet another threat to coral reefs: plastics. "Plastic debris can cause physical injury and abrasion to coral tissues by facilitating invasion of pathogens or by exhausting resources for immune system function during wound-healing processes", the authors of the study write.

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

The more they looked, especially in Asian waters, the more they found: Bottles, diapers, Q-tips, food wrappers.

The scientists, from the United States, Australia, Thailand, Myanmar, Canada and Indonesia, surveyed 159 reefs from 2011-14 in the Asia-Pacific region.

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Coastal authorities all over the world are testing new solutions to reduce the amount of plastic waste that travels from the land into neighboring waters.

The scientists forecast that by 2025, plastic going into the marine environment will increase to roughly 15.7 billion plastic items on coral reefs, which could lead to skeletal eroding band disease, white syndromes and black band disease.

However, he noted that while plastic could present an extra challenge and may be linked with an increase in disease risk, this study does not show that plastics are carrying pathogens into the reefs. It was the idea of a graduate student, Joleah Lamb.

This bleached states can last for up to six weeks, and while corals can recover if the temperature drops and the algae return, severely bleached corals die, and become covered by algae.

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Plastic in the Oceans Increasing Risk of Disease in Coral Reefs