"We examined more than 120,000 corals, both plastic-free and with plastic present, on 159 reefs from Indonesia, Australia, Myanmar and Thailand", said lead researcher Joleah Lamb, a postdoctoral research fellow at Cornell University in NY.
An global team led by a JCU scientist has found that contact with plastic waste massively increases the chance of disease in corals. In a paper released in the journal Science on Thursday, they estimate that reefs across the Asia-Pacific region are littered with more than 11 billion pieces of plastic larger than 5 centimeters. They project this number to increase by an additional 40 percent by 2025.
Plastic debris can open wounds in coral tissues, potentially letting in pathogens such as Halofolliculina corallasia, the microbe that causes skeletal eroding band disease.
"This study demonstrates that reductions in the amount of plastic waste entering the ocean will have direct benefits to coral reefs by reducing disease-associated mortality", Lamb said.
Plastic pollution in the world's oceans are threatening the already endangered coral reefs with disease, a new study has warned. "So moderating disease outbreak risks in the ocean will be vital for improving both human and ecosystem health". Indonesia was found to be the worst offender, with the coral in Australia suffering the least - possibly due to Australia's intense clean-up and disposal efforts.
The researchers, led by Cornell University examined almost 125,000 reef-building corals taken from 159 reefs in Indonesia, Australia, Myanmar and Thailand. Every now and then she'd note a scrap of plastic as she swam through.
Globally, more than 275 million people live within 30 km of coral reefs, relying on them for food, coastal protection, tourism income, and cultural value.
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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.
Co-author Douglas Rader of the US Environmental Defense Fund said better management of fisheries was the best way to strengthen coral reefs to enable them to fend off man-made threats such as more plastics.
Plastic was found in a third of the coral reefs surveyed.
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. For example, the United Kingdom recently implemented its first "Seabin" to extract oil, plastic, and other debris from Portsmouth harbor, while the city of Rotterdam has been using an aquatic drone known as the "waste shark".
Joleah Lamb began her career as a coral biologist on the Great Barrier Reef.
"Bleached coral is more susceptible to disease", Harvell says.
Scientists have discovered how plastics hike the likelihood of corals being infected by disease by a factor of 20.