Waste has a double impact on organisms such as molluscs, algae, sponges and corals, which form habitats on which hundreds of species depend
Most are legally protected because of their fragility or biological diversity, but pollution of these habitats often goes unnoticed because many are found at great depths and are not formed by popular species
In a new report, Oceana issues a warning about how the impact of plastic is multiplied in biogenic habitats, which are habitats formed by species that serve as habitats for others, like coral reefs, seagrass meadows and kelp forests. These organisms suffer damage both as species and as habitat formers, since the problem extends to the biodiversity that depends on them. Classic protection measures fall short, so Oceana is calling for legislation to replace single-use products with reusable ones and to remove waste only if doing so does not damage the seabed.
“Most of the plastic that reaches the ocean accumulates on the seabed, where many of these sensitive ecosystems are found”, says Expedition Leader at Oceana in Europe, Ricardo Aguilar. “Our scientific research at sea found that many species from different habitat types are commonly exposed to plastic pollution”.
Many biogenic habitats are listed for protection under international and European conservation agreements, either because of their fragility, their productive capacity or their biological diversity. Damage to these species affects the organisms that depend on them and harms the ecosystem as a whole.
The main threats from plastics include exposure to hooks and netting, particularly for organisms that are attached to the substrate, such as oysters or mussels. Plastic debris in coral reefs can tear and scratch the surface, leading to infection. Other species, such as sponges, are at risk of ingesting and leaching plastic-derived toxins.
“Reefs and seagrass beds are often biodiversity hotspots and the EU recognises that their conservation is a priority, but this is forgotten in legislation”, explains the plastics campaign director at Oceana in Europe, Natividad Sanchez. “Designating marine protected areas isn’t enough; we have to prevent waste from reaching these areas. Large-scale removal of plastics from the seabed is economically and logistically unfeasible, so developing strong public policies that encourage reduction and reuse is crucial”.
To this end, Oceana calls for three key initiatives to tackle the impact of plastic: