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Plastic waste associated with disease on coral reefs

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Science  26 Jan 2018:
Vol. 359, Issue 6374, pp. 460-462
DOI: 10.1126/science.aar3320

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Corals wrapped in plastic

Coral reefs provide vital fisheries and coastal defense, and they urgently need protection from the damaging effects of plastic waste. Lamb et al. surveyed 159 coral reefs in the Asia-Pacific region. Billions of plastic items were entangled in the reefs. The more spikey the coral species, the more likely they were to snag plastic. 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.

Science, this issue p. 460

Abstract

Plastic waste can promote microbial colonization by pathogens implicated in outbreaks of disease in the ocean. We assessed the influence of plastic waste on disease risk in 124,000 reef-building corals from 159 reefs in the Asia-Pacific region. The likelihood of disease increases from 4% to 89% when corals are in contact with plastic. Structurally complex corals are eight times more likely to be affected by plastic, suggesting that microhabitats for reef-associated organisms and valuable fisheries will be disproportionately affected. Plastic levels on coral reefs correspond to estimates of terrestrial mismanaged plastic waste entering the ocean. We estimate that 11.1 billion plastic items are entangled on coral reefs across the Asia-Pacific and project this number to increase 40% by 2025. Plastic waste management is critical for reducing diseases that threaten ecosystem health and human livelihoods.

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