Plastic trash linked to disease in corals

A Nike logo is clearly visible on an item lodged into a coral reef

But Lamb found a different environment in Southeast Asia, home to some of the world's most diverse and lovely coral reefs.

Lamb and colleagues surveyed 159 coral reefs from Indonesia, Australia, Myanmar and Thailand, visually examining almost 125,000 reef-building corals for tissue loss and disease lesions. And where it clings, it sickens or kills.

An global team led by a JCU scientist has found that contact with plastic waste massively increases the chance of disease in corals.

"Our work shows that plastic pollution is killing corals", said senior author Professor Drew Harvell, an ecologist at Cornell. "The presence of plastic was associated with a 20-fold increased risk of disease in general, particularly skeletal eroding band disease, white syndromes and black band disease", the study said.

Joleah Lamb is a research fellow at Cornell University.

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. "But we really didn't have an idea about what's underneath the surface of the ocean". But generally speaking, it seems that plastic debris slices open the skin of the corals and exposes them to pathogens.

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The risks have been calculated after researchers revealed the Asia-Pacific region is awash with 11.1 billion plastic items, with this figure expected to rise by 40 per cent over the next seven years.

Throughout the course of their research, scientists involved in the new study noticed that the plastics problem was not evenly distributed.

Joleah Lamb performs reef surveys on the Great Barrier Reef. Other countries in the Pacific don't have much control over what ends up in the waste stream. Kelly says after seeing the findings of the study she co-authored, she no longer uses plastic straws and shopping bags. According to JCU scholar Bette Willis, the bleaching is expected to increase with the warming of sea water.

Corals that weren't in with garbage had just a four per cent chance of being visibly diseased. "The bleached coral is stressed".

Meanwhile, Indonesia fared the worst when it came to plastic pollution. She also examined whether existing coral reef management strategies are effective for mitigating marine diseases, such as the use of marine protected areas. By combining the amount of plastic entering the ocean in each country, a known quantity from previous researchers' work, with their own observations, they were able to estimate how much plastic was likely on reefs in 15 different nations in the Asia-Pacific region.

Lamb explained the porous nature of plastics is the ideal environment for harmful, disease-carrying microorganisms to enter and infect the host plant. Of the plastic-free reefs, which were few and far between, only 4 percent were infected with other diseases.

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