Ocean plastic waste is making coral reefs vulnerable to disease

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The scientists forecast that by 2025, plastic going into the marine environment will increase to roughly 15.7 billion plastic items on coral reefs, which could lead to skeletal eroding band disease, white syndromes and black band disease. This could spell disaster for the world's reefs; the team found that when corals come into contact with plastics, the likelihood of the corals developing a disease jumps from four to 89 percent.

"We don't know the exact mechanisms, but plastics make ideal vessels for colonizing microscopic organisms that could trigger disease if they come into contact with corals", Dr Lamb said. "Massive amounts of plastic are being thrown into the oceans from land", Harvell says, in countries that don't have much recycling and with dumps that are often adjacent to the ocean or waterways that run into the ocean.

Tea bags, plastic bags, fishing nets, and diapers are among the billions of pieces of plastic suffocating the fish and coral reefs in the Asia-Pacific region, new research reveals. This is significant given that 4.8 million to 12.7 million metric tons of plastic waste are estimated to enter the ocean in a single year, Lamb said. "If a piece of plastic happens to entangle on a coral it has a pretty bad chance of survival", she said.

Dr Joleah Lamb, from the ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies based at JCU, led the study reported in the journal Science this week.

This allows bacteria and viruses to gain hold on the coral, with spikey coral more likely to snag any plastic rubbish. Previous research has indicated that this may be because plastic debris can cause stress to coral by depriving it of light and oxygen, while providing a gateway for pathogens.

"Whats troubling about coral disease is that once the coral tissue loss occurs, its not coming back", said Lamb.

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Similarly, polypropylene - which is used to make bottle caps and toothbrushes - can be colonised by Vibrio, a potential pathogen linked to a globally devastating group of coral diseases known as white syndromes.

"Its like getting gangrene on your foot and there is nothing you can do to stop it from affecting your whole body", the researcher said.

Dr. Lamb is now a NatureNet Fellow at Cornell University with The Nature Conservancy and holds a PhD in Tropical Marine Ecology and Fisheries Biology from James Cook University in Australia. Secondly, plastic also blocks sunlight from reaching the corals, which can also pose a long-term threat.

How can plastic waste cause disease? "Plastic waste management is critical for reducing diseases that threaten ecosystem health and human livelihoods".

Matthew Savoca, a marine scientist at the the University of California, Davis, who studies the effects of plastic in the ocean, suggests that ocean waters with lots of plastic waste might also carry other pollutants that could also be contributing to higher rates of coral disease.