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Plastic pollution on the world’s coral reefs

An Author Correction to this article was published on 09 November 2023

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Coral reefs are losing the capacity to sustain their biological functions1. In addition to other well-known stressors, such as climatic change and overfishing1, plastic pollution is an emerging threat to coral reefs, spreading throughout reef food webs2, and increasing disease transmission and structural damage to reef organisms3. Although recognized as a global concern4, the distribution and quantity of plastics trapped in the world’s coral reefs remains uncertain3. Here we survey 84 shallow and deep coral ecosystems at 25 locations across the Pacific, Atlantic and Indian ocean basins for anthropogenic macrodebris (pollution by human-generated objects larger than 5 centimetres, including plastics), performing 1,231 transects. Our results show anthropogenic debris in 77 out of the 84 reefs surveyed, including in some of Earth’s most remote and near-pristine reefs, such as in uninhabited central Pacific atolls. Macroplastics represent 88% of the anthropogenic debris, and, like other debris types, peak in deeper reefs (mesophotic zones at 30–150 metres depth), with fishing activities as the main source of plastics in most areas. These findings contrast with the global pattern observed in other nearshore marine ecosystems, where macroplastic densities decrease with depth and are dominated by consumer items5. As the world moves towards a global treaty to tackle plastic pollution6, understanding its distribution and drivers provides key information to help to design the strategies needed to address this ubiquitous threat.

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Fig. 1: Anthropogenic debris is abundant on coral reefs of the world.
Fig. 2: Distribution of anthropogenic debris on coral reefs of the world.
Fig. 3: Relationship between anthropogenic debris and depth.
Fig. 4: The influence of environmental and anthropogenic factors on the abundance of anthropogenic debris on coral reefs.

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We are grateful to many colleagues who helped in the field and with discussions: W. D. Anderson, C. Baldwin, M. Bell, T. Bowling, M. Bozinovic, C. Castillo, D. Catania, A. Chequer, L. Colin, P. Colin, J. M. Copus (in memoriam), S. D. T. Delfino, T. Donaldson, I. Escote, C. E. L. Ferreira, A. A. V. Flores, C. Flook, J. Fong, R. C. Garla, J. L. Gasparini, B. Greene, G. Goodbody-Gringley, J. Harris, E. Jessup, J. C. Joyeux, L. Labe, M. Lane, S. Lindfield, R. M. Macieira, J. E. McCosker, P. Muller, N. Nazarian, R. Palmer, C. R. Pimentel, J. Pitt, R. Pyle, J. A. Reis-Filho, C. R. Rocha, A. D. Rogers, M. Samoilys, T. Sinclair-Taylor, G. Siu, A. Shafer, C. E. Stein, M. Vermeij, M. Vilela, T. Warren and L. Webber. Hollis Rebreathers LLC, the Bermuda Institute of Ocean Sciences, Anilao Beach Club, Pohnpei Surf Club, MDA Guam, Triangle Diving, Substation Curaçao, RV Angra Pequena M/V Alucia, M/V Ocean Zephyr, M/V Iron Joy, R/V Baseline Explorer, Pizzaria Namoita, Atlantis Divers, C. Cicculo, Global Subdive, ROV Support A/S, Brownies Global Logistics, the technical divers of Global Underwater Explorers (M. McClellan, M. Tanguay, S. Bird, K. Dow, G. Blackmore, J. P. Bressor, S. E. Kim, and K. Kim). A special thanks also goes out to the various departments of the Seychelles Government, especially the Ministry of Agriculture, Climate Change and Environment, the Islands Development Company, the Island Conservation Society and the Seychelles Islands Foundation for their continuous support and access and facilitation to the Seychelles outer islands. We also thank the Seychelles Fishing Authority, The Nature Conservancy, University of Seychelles, The Seychelles Conservation and Climate Adaptation Trust, Alphonse Foundation, Blue Safaris Seychelles, Desroches Foundation, Marine Conservation Society Seychelles, Nature Seychelles, Poivre Foundation, Save our Seas Foundation, and Indies Trader provided gear and logistical support. We are grateful for the support of donors who endorsed the California Academy of Sciences’ Hope for Reefs initiative and funding expeditions throughout the Pacific and Atlantic oceans. We also thank National Science Foundation (grant DEB 12576304 to L.A.R.), Fundação Grupo O Boticário de Proteção à Natureza (grant 1141_20182 to H.T.P. and L.A.R.), Fundação de Amparo à Pesquisa do Estado de São Paulo (grant 2019/24215-2 to H.T.P., J.P.Q., R.F.F. and L.A.R., and grant 2021/07039-6 to H.T.P.) for essential funding. L.A.R. was supported through a Rolex Award for Enterprise, and R.F.F. through a CNPq fellowship (#309651/2021-2). ROV surveys in the Coral Sea conducted by B.J.C. and G.F.G. were funded by an Our Marine Parks Round 2 Grant (4-FISKTNX) to A. S. Hoey, M. S. Pratchett and A. Barnett (James Cook University) by Australian Marine Parks (Australian Federal Government). Research permits were secured through partnership with the Philippine Department of Agriculture - Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources, the Bahamas Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Department of Fisheries of Pohnpei (Federated States of Micronesia), the Department of Environment and Natural Resources of Curaçao, the Ministry of Fisheries of French Polynesia, the Marshall Islands Marine Resources Authority, Brazilian Environmental Agency (ICMBio), US Fish and Wildlife Service, Ministry of Resources and Development of Palau, Department of Environment and Natural Resources (Bermuda), Ministry of Agriculture, Climate Change and Environment (Seychelles), Ministry of Agriculture, Fishing, Environment, Spatial Planning and Urban Development (Comoros) and Australian Marine Parks (Australia, permit number PA2020-00092; Part8A: AU-COM2021-504. Expeditions to Bermuda and Seychelles were facilitated by the Nekton Foundation (grant to L.C.W. and P.V.S.). Bermuda surveys were conducted as part of XL Catlin Deep Ocean Survey with license 2016070751, permission 87/2016 and special permit 160702; Seychelles research was conducted during the Seychelles: First Descent Expedition, under permit 524, with funding from Omega and Kensington Tours; Comoros data were collected with funding from Critical Ecosystem Partnership Fund by partners University of Comoros, Comoros Directorate of Fisheries, Wildlands Conservation Trust, SAIAB, Nekton and CORDIO. This is Nekton contribution 35.

Author information

Authors and Affiliations



H.T.P., R.G.S., C.M. and L.A.R. designed the study. H.T.P., C.M., R.G.S., A.B., B.J.C., G.F.G., P.M., T.A.P., B.S., P.V.S., J.B.T., L.C.W. and L.A.R. collected the data. C.M., H.T.P. and R.F.F. led the investigation. C.M. and L.A.R. worked on the visualization. H.T.P. and R.G.S. led the original draft. All authors discussed the results, reviewed, edited and commented on the paper.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Hudson T. Pinheiro.

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Extended data figures and tables

Extended Data Fig. 1 Mean (above) and maximum (below) densities of plastics on the world’s coral reefs - as relative to a football field.

Each white dot represents a piece of plastic.

Source data

Extended Data Fig. 2 The influence of environmental and anthropogenic factors on the abundance of anthropogenic debris on coral reefs.

These models differ from those in Fig. 4 in the main text as they consider non-linear depth effects, rather than the effects of depth considered in the three common categorical depth zones. Estimates of predictor effects on anthropogenic debris for: (a) all debris, (b) fishing plastic debris, (c) consumer plastic debris, and (d) non-plastic debris. Lines of each density plot show the 95% credibility intervals and the shaded areas show the 80% intervals. Blue density plots indicate negative relationships between predictor variables and debris density, whereas tan density plots indicate positive relationships. Darker colours indicate relationships supported with > 95% credibility and lighter colours with > 80% credibility (shaded area of each density plot). Grey density plots indicate predictors with relationships that have < 80% credibility. Categorical effects are relative to estimates from samples in the shallow depth zone, and with low complexity.

Source data

Extended Data Fig. 3 NMDS analysis of the abundance of distinct categories and sizes of anthropogenic debris organized in relation to levels of habitat complexity and depth zones of coral reefs.

The composition of plastics here is separated into fifteen classes: five size classes for each of three debris types. ‘plastics’ = all non-fishing-related plastics, ‘fishing’ = all fishing related plastics, ‘other’ = all non-plastic debris. Size 1 = 5 – 10 cm, Size 2 = 10 – 25 cm, Size 3 = 25 – 50 cm, Size 4 = 50 – 100 cm, and Size 5 = >100 cm.

Source data

Extended Data Fig. 4 Sampling sufficiency, evaluated considering the three categories (fishing, other, plastics) by using autosimilarity curves based on zero-adjusted Bray–Curtis coefficient of abundance data.

Results indicated that sampling effort was sufficient to stabilize similarity among transects of locations sampled irrespective of the different methods used (except for Palau, sampled with UVCs).

Source data

Extended Data Table 1 Summary information on the methods, effort and results for quantifying anthropogenic debris in each studied coral reef location
Extended Data Table 2 Probability of effects (influence unequal to zero) of each analysed variable on the density of anthropogenic debris on coral reefs
Extended Data Table 3 Leave-one-out cross validation comparison of model fits for models using depth as a continuous or categorical predictor, calculated as the difference (and standard error) in expected log pointwise predictive density (ELPD)

Supplementary information

Source data

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Pinheiro, H.T., MacDonald, C., Santos, R.G. et al. Plastic pollution on the world’s coral reefs. Nature 619, 311–316 (2023).

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