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Now, as Ed Yong reports for the Atlantic, a new study has highlighted the distressing magnitude of yet another threat to coral reefs: plastics.

"The likelihood of disease increases from four percent to 89 percent when corals are in contact with plastic", researchers report in the journal Science.

Furthermore, the authors also predict that the number of plastic items entangled in coral reefs in the Asia-Pacific could increase to a staggering 15.7 billion by 2025. That figure could increase 40-percent over the next several years if something isn't done. 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.

The link between disease and plastic may well apply to other reefs such as in the Caribbean and off Africa, and may be harming other life on the ocean floor such as sponges or kelp, Lamb said.

Plastic has a range of negative effects on coral reefs.

More than 11 billion pieces of plastic were lodged in the Asia-Pacific oceans corals, researchers from New York's Cornell University who studied them.

"So moderating disease risks in the ocean will be vital for improving both human and ecosystem health", she added. 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.

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"It's sad how many pieces of plastic there are in the coral reefs ...if we can start targeting those big polluters of plastic, hopefully, we can start reducing the amount that is going on to these reefs."
"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. They found that one-third of them were contaminated with plastic - sometimes large patches of plastic garbage were visible. These reefs provide the US 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.

'For example, plastic items such as those commonly made of polypropylene, like bottle caps and toothbrushes, have been shown to become heavily inhabited by bacteria that are associated with a globally devastating group of coral diseases known as white syndromes, ' she said. Secondly, plastic also blocks sunlight from reaching the corals, which can also pose a long-term threat.

Further investigations are needed to determine precisely how and why plastics make coral susceptible to different diseases.

How can plastic waste cause disease?

Plastic trash can carry harmful microbes to coral reefs, which are also damaged when the plastics collide with them.

Joleah Lamb is a research fellow at Cornell University.


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