Coral reefs are meant to be riots of color, but those that Joleah Lamb studied in the Indo-Pacific were colorful for all the wrong reasons. Their branches and crevices were frequently festooned with plastic junk. “We came across chairs, chip wrappers, Q-tips, garbage bags, water bottles, old nappies,” she says. “Everything you see on the beach is probably lying on the reef. And it seems like it’s getting worse.”
Whenever Lamb or her colleagues from Cornell University found a piece of plastic, they would lift it up to study the health of the coral underneath. And almost every time, that coral would be riddled with disease. “It’s just a disaster under there,” she says.
“I didn’t think we would be the ones to write this study,” says Lamb, because other scientists have already done so much research on plastic pollution. They’ve estimated that 5 trillion tiny pieces of plastic float in the seas. They’ve shown that some gets swallowed by seabirds because it smells like food. They’ve documented plastic waste on the shores of the world’s remotest islands.
But to Lamb’s surprise, no one had really estimated the extent of plastic junk on coral reefs, or studied how that junk relates to disease. Indeed, when people think about the many ills befalling reefs—rising temperatures, acidifying waters, overfishing, nutrient pollution, ravenous starfish—plastic rarely gets a mention.
Worse still, plastic-induced ailments disproportionately affect the corals that provide important habitats for fish—the ones that create intricate branches and layers. That same architectural complexity becomes easily filled and entwined with plastic, so these corals are eight times more likely to be diseased than simpler ones with rounded shapes.
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SOURCE: The Atlantic, Ed Yong