BRISTOL, R.I. (WPRI) — In 2017, Eyewitness News accompanied local researchers as they gathered coral in the waters off Fort Wetherill in Jamestown. They wanted to study the impacts plastics have on the coral. Their findings surprised even them.
Coral reef ecosystems support 25% of the ocean biodiversity, so it is important that coral stays healthy.
“We can find plastics in local coral colonies, and they were at numbers much higher than we expected,” said Koty Sharp, an associate professor at Roger Williams University (RWU) in Bristol.
Researchers at RWU are studying various types of microorganisms in their state-of-the-art marine lab, including local northern star coral. To study how small pieces of plastics impact the coral, students feed them plastic blue microbeads similar to what were once used in personal care products. The beads are 200 microns in diameter, which is about one-fifth of the diameter of a human hair. The coral easily ingests the plastic.
“When we gave them a choice between plastics and natural food that is the same size and shape, overwhelmingly they chose the plastic,” Sharp said.
The concern is that the coral, instead of filling up on nutritious foods, are filling themselves with plastics. If they eat less natural foods, they’ll have less energy to grow and reproduce. Also, after small organisms eat the plastic, it will go up through the food chain to plankton, other fish, and eventually to humans.
It’s not just the plastics that are a concern, however, it is bacteria.
“One of the findings that concerned us the most from this work was that we were able to show that bacteria on the surface of plastics indeed ride in on plastics that are accidentally ingested by corals,” Sharp explained.
Corals around the globe are threatened by rising water temperatures, and plastics are exacerbating the problem.
Sharp’s research was recently published in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences. Sharp collaborated with Randi Rotjan a Research Assistant Professor at Boston University. Looking ahead, the research at RWU “will be focusing more on specific microbes — identifying plastics-associated microbes and tracking their fate into corals and across the food web,” according to Sharp.
“Bottom line is stopping our plastic input into the ocean and the best thing that we can do is remove as many plastics from the waste stream as possible,” she added.
Ways to reduce plastic pollution include stopping the use of single-use plastics like straws and plastic cups. Reusable bags and mugs are also encouraged.