A fishing net on a coral reef on the Costa Brava, Spain. Reinhard Dirscherl/Corbis/Getty Images
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We already know that plastic is a main threat to marine life, with more than 12.7 million tonnes of plastic waste dumped into the oceans each year. But a new study has found that 92% of the world’s coral reefs surveyed, even remote reefs, are covered in plastic.
The study, published in the journal Nature, studied 84 coral reef systems, both shallow and deep, at 25 locations in the Atlantic, Indian and Pacific oceans. They found that coral reefs were more impacted than other marine ecosystems (apart from coastal ecosystems like beaches and wetlands) by plastic and other litter.
“Plastic pollution is one of the most pressing problems plaguing ocean ecosystems, and coral reefs are no exception,” Hudson Pinheiro, lead author of the study and a biologist at the Center for Marine Biology at the University of Sao Paulo, said in a press release. “From macroplastics that spread coral disease to fishing lines that entangle and damage the structural complexity of the reef, decreasing both the abundance and diversity of fish, pollution negatively impacts the entire ecosystem. coral reefs.”
The researchers found that the deeper they studied in the oceans, the more plastic they found. About three quarters of the plastic debris found in the study came from fishing gear. Most of the plastic debris found, about 88% of the total debris, was larger than two inches.
“It was surprising to find that the debris increased with depth, since deeper reefs are generally farther from sources of plastic pollution,” said Luiz Rocha, lead study author and curator of ichthyology at the California Academy of Sciences, in a press release. “We are almost always the first humans to set eyes on these deeper reefs, and yet we see human-made trash with every dive. It really puts into perspective the effect we have had on the planet.
The researchers hypothesize that the higher amounts of litter at greater depths could be due to waves washing away the litter, humans collecting litter from shallow reefs, or shallow reefs pushing on the debris.
In the study, scientists found that Comoros, a three-island country off the coast of East Africa, had the highest pollution density. Here they found around 84,500 pieces of debris per square kilometer.
The researchers recommended that in addition to improving waste management and reducing single-use plastic, there is a need for innovation in fishing gear to make it biodegradable.
“How can we change the strings, the nets? Pinheiro says NPR. “We need to find a biodegradable material, like made from fibers like we did before.”
We can also look to places that have been found to have less plastic pollution, like the Marshall Islands, for inspiration to reduce this pollution.
“Despite the worrying general trend, there were places where we found relatively little debris, showing us that there are effective strategies to prevent plastic pollution,” said the study’s co-author. , Bart Shepherd, director of the Steinhart Aquarium at the California Academy of Sciences. . “If we act quickly and employ science-based solutions, there is absolutely hope for coral reefs.”