Billions of Pieces of Plastic Are Destroying Coral Reefs

While coral reefs around the world are already suffering from threats including climate change and bleaching, a new study is pointing to yet another serious problem: plastic pollution.

According to a study just published in the journal Science, coming into contact with plastic makes coral far more likely to contract deadly diseases.

For the study, researchers from Cornell University surveyed 124,000 reef-building corals in 159 coral reefs from Indonesia, Australia, Myanmar and Thailand looking for signs of tissue loss and disease.

According to their findings, when plastic debris comes into contact with coral, the likelihood of diseases linked to rapid coral death — including skeletal eroding band disease, white syndromes and black band disease — increases from 4 to 89 percent.

“What’s troubling about coral disease is that once the coral tissue loss occurs, it’s not coming back,” said the study’s lead author, Joleah Lamb, who is a postdoctoral research fellow at Cornell University. “It’s like getting gangrene on your foot and there is nothing you can do to stop it from affecting your whole body.”

Contact with plastic could be hurting corals in a number of ways, ranging from depriving them of light and suffocating them to releasing toxins or injuring them, which gives pathogens a way in.

“Plastics make ideal vessels for colonizing microscopic organisms that could trigger disease if they come into contact with corals,” said Lamb. “Plastic items – commonly made of polypropylene, such as bottle caps and toothbrushes – have been shown to become heavily inhabited by bacteria. This is associated with the globally devastating group of coral diseases known as white syndromes.”

They also estimate that there are more than 11 billion plastic items entangled on reefs across the Asia-Pacific region, which is home to a little more than half of the earth’s coral reefs, and that this number is likely to increase by 40 percent by 2025 if things continue at the current rate. More concerning is that they believe that is an underestimation because China and Singapore weren’t included in their model.

“Our work shows that plastic pollution is killing corals. Our goal is to focus less on measuring things dying and more on finding solutions,” said senior author Drew Harvell, professor of ecology and evolutionary biology at Cornell. “While we can’t stop the huge impact of global warming on coral health in the short term, this new work should drive policy toward reducing plastic pollution.”

Ultimately, researchers hope to see the amount of plastic entering the oceans reduced through less use, and improved waste management systems.

Losing coral reefs would have a devastating impact. These biologically diverse ecosystems don’t just provide critical habitat, spawning grounds and nurseries for numerous species, they protect us from storms and erosion, and are incredibly culturally and economically valuable.

Photo credit: Thinkstock

64 comments

John B
John B3 months ago

Thanks for sharing.

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John B
John B3 months ago

Thanks Alicia for sharing the info, video and link. Petition signed previously.

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Mark Donner
Mark Donner3 months ago

The figure is 90% of plastic waster transported to the world's oceans comes from ONLY 10 rivers. That means most of the problem can be solved by focusing on those 10 river systems, along with cleaning up existing plastic pollution. But governments are not looking past their greed and addressing this solvable problem.

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Glennis W
Glennis W3 months ago

Wish people would take their rubbish with them Thank you for caring and sharing

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Glennis W
Glennis W3 months ago

Deplorable and sickening Thank you for caring and sharing

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Glennis W
Glennis W3 months ago

Bloody plastic all should be banned Thank you for caring and sharing

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Glennis W
Glennis W3 months ago

Very frightening Thank you for caring and sharing

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heather g
heather g3 months ago

It's time the manufacturers came up with solutions for the pollution problem. Other than using a cloth bag at the grocery store, most people don't bother about pollution.
Howe Sound was tested by the Vancouver Aquarium and it has up to 9,000 pieces of plastic per square metre of sea water. Although I speak about it regularly, nobody seems to be taking any action to stop this. So even our salmon are packed with thousands of microscopic pieces of plastic.

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Barbara Idso
Barbara Idso3 months ago

Everything we purchase has plastic of some kinds... tags, handles, etc. We need biodegradable everything!! Stop the plastic!!

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Ramesh B
Ramesh B3 months ago

:(

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