In our study, we examined more than 124,000 reef-building corals and found that 89% of corals with trapped plastic had visual signs of disease - a marked increase from the 4% chance of a coral having disease without plastic. Coral reefs are responsible for yearly $375 billion in goods and services related to fishing, tourism, and coastal protection.
"We examined more than 120,000 corals, both plastic-free and with plastic present, on 159 reefs from Indonesia, Australia, Myanmar and Thailand", said lead researcher Joleah Lamb, a postdoctoral research fellow at Cornell University in NY.
Out of the top 10 worst plastic polluters in the world, nine are in the Asia-Pacific, according to the researchers, who say poor waste management is to blame for much of the plastics that enter the ocean.
"You could be diving and you think someone's tapping your shoulder but it's just a bottle knocking against you, or a plastic trash bag stuck on your tank", lead author Joleah Lamb of Cornell University told Reuters. The scientists urged tougher restrictions on plastic waste.
Joleah Lamb performs reef surveys on the Great Barrier Reef. They found that one-third of them were contaminated with plastic - sometimes large patches of plastic garbage were visible.
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An estimated 11.1 billion plastic items float suspended in a sea of blue, as fish and other sea creatures steadily breath and ingest the particles left behind by tourists and residents of nearby islands, scientists say in a recent publication in the journal Science.
This increase is set to happen much faster in developing countries than industrialised ones. "Disease likelihood increased 20-fold once a coral was draped in plastic".
"There's a disease called black-band disease - it's a thick black band that can move across the coral and cause tissue damage".
"They do not present clear evidence as to whether the pathogens were transferred by the plastic - but that is certainly a possibility", he said. "This is associated with the globally devastating group of coral diseases known as white syndromes". "Plastic debris stresses coral through light deprivation, toxin release, and anoxia, giving pathogens a foothold for invasion". If humankind can reduce the amount of plastic in the seas, the corals will rebound.
Structurally complex corals are eight times more likely to be affected by plastic, particularly branching and tabular species. They positively identified the presence of six different types of coral diseases. That might sound dramatic but researchers have already warned that unless we take massive action - and soon - most of the world's corals are pretty much doomed. By far the easiest way to tackle the problem is by reducing the amount of mismanaged plastic on land that finds its way into the ocean.