New study published in Science quantifies growing threat plastics pose to coral reefs

Statement from co-author Douglas N. Rader, Chief Oceans Scientist, EDF Oceans Program

January 25, 2018
Violet Zarriello, (617) 510-7101,

(Raleigh, N.C. – January 25, 2018) Results from new research published today in the journal Science provide among the first quantitative assessments of the impact of plastic pollution on the health of coral reefs. The study estimated that there are already more than 11 billion plastic items on reefs across the Asia-Pacific region and that plastic loads in the ocean are expected to grow radically.

The study showed an elevated risk of disease to corals caused by plastic: from 4% in corals without plastic, to 89% in corals with plastic.

The research was led by researchers from the Atkinson Center for a Sustainable Future at Cornell University, and involved a wide array of coral experts from universities and environmental organizations, including Environmental Defense Fund, who together surveyed 159 reefs around the Asia-Pacific region, including 124,000 corals to assess the prevalence of plastics and the association of plastics with coral diseases, as part of a larger study on risks to coral reef health.

The following is a statement from study co-author Douglas N. Rader, Ph.D., chief oceans scientist, Environmental Defense Fund’s Oceans program:

“It is clear that plastic waste in the ocean is a serious threat to coral reefs. The results from this new research are sobering, but there is hope if we act now to mitigate the most significant threats facing corals and the vulnerable human communities who depend on them.

“The impacts of plastics are in addition to many other threats, with overfishing topping the list. We believe this work underscores the need for good fisheries management, as one of the best ways to keep coral reefs healthy.

“If we increase the abundance of fish, we can improve the health of coral ecosystems, making them more resilient to climate change and maximizing their value to the people who depend on them. While fighting overfishing does not directly undo disease risks caused by plastic, fixing overfishing could well help offset damage done to individual corals.

“The scale of the pollution highlighted in this study makes it clear that whether it is reduction in plastic pollution, ending overfishing or reducing carbon emissions, the time to act is now.”

Click here to view the release from Cornell University that features the study’s lead author, Dr. Joleah Lamb.

Click here to read a blog post by Douglas Rader detailing the global implications of this research for coral reefs ecosystems and the people who depend on them for survival.

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