September 10, 2020

Ring Of Coral Islands In The Seychelles Described By Sir David Attenborough As ‘one Of The World’s Greatest Surviving Natural Treasures’ Is Being Destroyed By Plastic Pollution, Study Finds

News Source: Daily Mail

Author(s): Ryan Morrison

A ring of coral islands described as 'one of the world's greatest surviving natural treasures' by Sir David Attenborough, is being destroyed by plastic pollution.

During a cleanup programme in 2019 more than 25 tonnes of plastic were removed from the remote atoll of Aldabra, Seychelles - just 5 per cent of the total.

This work took 980 hours over a period of five weeks, 12 volunteers and cost $224,538 to complete - finding fishing nets, bottles, lids and even flip flops.

The haul is the largest accumulation of plastic waste reported for any single island anywhere in the world, according to the team from the University of Oxford.

Using this information and the cost of other cleanup operations on similar islands, the team calculated the total cost of clearing all litter from the entire 150 square mile atoll would be £3.6 million and require 18,000 hours of labour.

Mountains of plastic washes up on the island from around the world, causing problems for native wildlife such as turtles who mistake colourful lids for fruit.

To protect marine and coastal ecosystems such as the Aldabra atoll, the team say international funding should be made available to help in clean up operations.

Aldabra consists of four large islands surrounding a large lagoon and supports an interconnected marine ecosystem of coral reef, mangroves and seagrass beds.

It is home to the last remaining population of Indian Ocean giant tortoises, nesting green turtles and other endemic species.

Dubbed the 'Galapagos of the Indian Ocean', turtles were spotted by researchers crawling over plastic rubble in order to lay their eggs in the sand.

The animals can mistake the plastic pollution for fruit - leaving them eating caps, containers, bags and even toothbrushes which damages their bodies.

Lead author April Burt, a PhD student at the University of Oxford, said these are very direct and observable impacts to wildlife of plastic pollution.

'We also observed turtle hatchlings struggling to get through the trash to the sea and adult females were having to use more energy to find and dig their nests.'

But there is also a whole raft of indirect threats - which could wreck the whole ecosystem, Burt said. 'Other studies have shown plastics fuel disease in coral.'

'Aldabra is surrounded by coral reefs and these reefs need to be as healthy as possible to face the ongoing climatic stress they are under.'

It is more than 400 miles from the nearest significant human settlement but its position in the ocean currents mean that every high tide brings more plastic.

Access to the atoll, part of the Seychelles, is strictly controlled for reasons of biosecurity - it is isolated from Africa by hundreds of miles of open ocean.

Alabra is the second-largest coral atoll in the world - with an are of 150 sq miles - in 2016 the idyllic paradise lost half of its hard coral cover due to bleaching.

That is caused in part by warming ocean temperatures turning coral white. Burt said accumulation of plastics could be feeding microplastics into the fragile reef.

She added: 'Aldabra in itself is one of the most pristine ecosystems on the planet. The phenomenal wildlife it supports will certainly be impacted in coming decades.

'This plastic pollution is one extra burden the Seychelles Islands Foundation - who manage Aldabra - could do without. 'Its costs are beyond their financial capacity.'

In March last year her team chartered a cargo vessel and removed five per cent of the litter but about 513 tonnes of plastic waste still remains on the island.

This is the first time the financial cost for removing the waste from the UNESCO World Heritage sire has been calculated.

It equates to $10,000 per day of clean‐up operations or $8,900 per tonne of litter - well beyond the capacity of non-profit organisations doing the work.

Ms Burt said it was an 'eye watering price-tag that makes the economic burden of the unsanctioned import of plastic litter on small island states abundantly clear.'

'The project has highlighted how even remote highly-protected island ecosystems are now being impacted by global pollution and how difficult and costly it is to remedy,' explained Burt.

'We highlight the main sources of the pollution arriving on Aldabra are related to the fishing industry in Seychelles, which provides tuna to EU countries and other high-income markets around the world.

'There should be some recompense for the damage being caused.'

Aldabra is an iconic site, described by Sir David Attenborough as one of the world's last remaining natural treasures. It has remained relatively pristine and is home to an array of incredible wildlife.

Co author Dr Lindsay Turnbull, also from Oxford, said there is an 'unfairness and inequality' where small island states are paying the bill - ecologically and financially - for actions taken elsewhere in the world.

'As with the climate crisis, small island states are at the frontline in dealing with the impacts of actions in which they played very little part,' she said.

'It is time this inequality was addressed with direct financial assistance to rectify and ameliorate these threats.'

The study published in the journal Scientific Reports recorded all costs associated with the clean-up, and the effort required to do so, by timing clean-up sessions and estimating the amount of litter collected per person per unit time.

The waste collected was weighed and categorised and additional surveys were conducted in each coastal habitat type to estimate the total remaining marine plastic litter on Aldabra and its composition.

This was used to determine the main sources of litter arriving on Aldabra.

Ms Burt said: 'The biggest surprise was the composition by weight was dominated by waste from the fishing industry: 83 per cent of the estimated 500 tonnes of litter remaining on Aldabra is fishing-industry related.

'This is extremely alarming because it shows that waste generated by the local fishing industry is polluting island ecosystems and having indirect negative impacts on the fish communities it needs to sustain.'

The researchers are calling for international funding be made available for biodiversity‐rich islands that are so important to the planet's health.

Dr Turnbull said: 'The increasing accumulations of marine plastic litter along Aldabra's coastlines together with direct entanglement, ingestion and injuries to a wide range of species in discarded fishing gear is unacceptable at this iconic site.

She said it is as unacceptable here as it would be if this amount of plastic rubbish 'had been allowed to accumulate in one of the world's great museums or galleries.'

A study into the cost of the cleanup has been published in Scientific Reports.