Plastic Pollution Is Killing Coral Reefs on an Unprecedented Scale Worldwide
We've known that our planet's coral reefs were dying, an ecological tragedy that came to a head last spring when it was widely reported that Australia's Great Barrier Reef was mostly dead, and likely not salvageable. Now we know that plastic is the main culprit, as reported by a new study published in Science.
Researchers surveyed 159 coral reefs in the Asia-Pacific region and found that billions of plastic items were entangled in the reefs. "The more spikey the coral species, the more likely they were to snag plastic," says the study. "Disease likelihood increased 20-fold once a coral was draped in plastic. Plastic debris stresses coral through light deprivation, toxin release, and anoxia, giving pathogens a foothold for invasion."
The study, which assessed the effect that plastic had on disease risk in 124,000 reef-building corals, found that the likelihood of disease increases from 4 percent to a whopping 89 percent when those corals come in contact with plastic. Because structurally complex corals are more than eight times likely to be affected by our plastic, the microhabitats, fish and other creatures living in them are disproportionately affected, too. The study estimates 11.1 billion plastic pieces are entangled on reefs just in the Asia-Pacific region alone, and the number is projected to increase 40 percent by 2025.
Plastic was found in a third of the coral reefs surveyed. Among them, reefs near Indonesia contained the most plastic, while Australian reefs showed the least, with Thailand and Myanmar somewhere in the middle.
"The country's estimated amount of mismanaged plastics—so the way they deal with their plastic waste—was a strong predictor of how much we would see on the reef," study lead author Dr. Joleah B. Lamb told the BBC.
While it might not be immediately clear how this pollution epidemic affects us here on land, our economy relies on those reefs considerably. These reefs provide the U.S. around $375 billion in goods and services through fisheries, tourism, and coastal protection, and when you consider that 80 percent of this debris originates on land, curbing the problem is very much in our power.
"[M]oderating disease outbreak risks in the ocean will be vital for improving both human and ecosystem health," the study concludes. "Our study indicates that decreasing the levels of plastic debris entering the ocean by improving waste management infrastructure is critical for reducing the amount of debris on coral reefs and the associated risk of disease and structural damage."
This note about improving waste management provides yet another example of how a neglected local government infrastructure has much wider, far-reaching consequences. And if that weren't enough, climate change is also causing 99 percent of Australian sea turtles to be born female. Meanwhile, humans have proven that we're also quite skilled at polluting space, too.