Plastic pollution in coral reefs is real and it threatens the marine life that resides in them, a new study suggests. It’s no secret that coral reefs around the world, especially the Great Barrier Reef, are impacted from climate changes which includes coral bleaching, increased acidic zones and the lack of oxygen in the oceans. Scientists observed coral reefs carefully, and concluded that two new things are threatening to jeopardize the reefs. They are deadly bacteria and plastic, which when combined, can cause corals to become diseased which leads to them dying off.
This is how the plastic pollution in coral reefs works: Bacteria “glues” itself onto chunks of plastic that are thrown into the sea, starting with plastic bags, diapers, bottles, toothbrushes and much more. The plastic in the water acts like a “marine motor home” for the bacteria, as the researcher from the Cornell University and the lead author of new study, Joleah Lamb described it to Newsweek. Bacteria spreads and colonizes the chunks of plastic, and then the plastic brushes up against the corals. That results in cutting open their skin which easily can result in the infection of a coral, and then the whole coral reef.
“This entangled plastic on corals is a triple whammy for coral infection,” Drew Harvell, co-author and ecology and evolutionary biology professor at Cornell, told Newsweek. “An infection can spread from a tiny wound to kill an entire coral, and some of these corals are huge and ancient,” Harvell added. “They may be hundreds of years old, and so infectious diseases can be extremely destructive.”
A team of scientists from around the world conducted research on 159 coral reefs across Indonesia, Australia, Myanmar and Thailand. They discovered that one-third of the coral reefs had plastic bits which were greater than 2 inches in size. Scientists had already known that plastic pollution in coral reefs was present, but this is the first time that they decided to observe it directly in order to comprehend how the bacteria and plastic were working together. They discovered that if plastic reaches the corals, the chance that corals are infected with a disease increases from 4 to 89%. They published their findings on Thursday in the journal Science.
“This one really slapped us in the face,” Doug Rader, co-author and chief ocean scientist at the Environmental Defense Fund, told Newsweek. “The association is just so strong between having plastic on the reef and those corals with plastic being diseased.”
“We do often find outbreaks of infectious disease following these bleaching events and killing vast swaths of the coral,” Harvell said. “It’s completely undermining the capability of coral to recover from stressful events.”
Still, Harvell told Newsweek that there are things that people can do in order to prevent plastic pollution in coral reefs. For example, they can reduce the use of plastic and ban single-use plastic bags. Along with those steps, they can reduce greenhouse gas emissions and conduct better fishing practices in order to reduce the multiple threats to the corals, researchers suggested.
“I have much more confidence that we can handle this,” Harvell said. “This is something we can solve.”