UNEP Report Recommends Policy and Management Actions to Address Plastics on Coral Reefs

Liang Fu

The UN Environment Programme (UNEP) has launched a report that provides recommendations for policymakers on how to address and reduce the impact of plastics on shallow water coral reefs. The report is one of several publications on the conservation and sustainable use of marine environments released by UNEP in conjunction with the fourth session of the UN Environment Assembly (UNEA-4).

The report titled, ‘Plastics and Shallow Water Coral Reefs: Synthesis of the Science for Policy-makers,’ states that marine plastic pollution is now found in all the world’s oceans, with the highest concentration of marine litter in coastal areas and reef environments. The majority of this litter originates from land-based sources through run-off and rivers. The report describes the threats shallow water coral reefs face from human activity, including climate change and pollution, and the resulting decline in reef health and coral cover around the world. Marine plastic litter pollution has affected over 800 marine species through entanglement, ingestion and habitat change, with a 49 percent increase in the instances of entanglement and ingestion of plastic debris over the past two decades.

According to the report, the issue of plastics in the marine environment is recognized as a global priority, including in SDG 14 (life below water). SDG target 14.1 focuses on preventing and significantly reducing marine pollution of all kinds by 2025.

Despite this recognition, there remains “a significant lack of knowledge on the true impacts of plastics on the reef environment.” The report identifies 11 knowledge gaps associated with reef ecosystems. These gaps relate to, inter alia: understanding the scale of mismanaged waste in relation to coral reef environments; understanding the impacts of leaching chemicals from plastics in coral reef environments; measuring concentrations of microplastics across coral reef ecoregions to understand the scale of the issues in a standardized way; and exploring the risk of microplastics on reef organisms.

Within this context, the report recommends investing in monitoring and research to address key knowledge gaps to strengthen the scientific evidence base for action on marine plastics that impact coral reefs. At the same time, the report stresses, even without this knowledge, it is clear that plastics are a major concern as well as one that can be addressed. The report calls for restricting or eliminating single-use plastics on a global scale, stressing that this action would have a “considerable and measurable impact” on the amount of plastics on reefs.

To advance action on marine litter and SDG target 14.1, the report calls for strengthening national planning to address land-based sources of plastic litter on coral reefs through national action plans, local mitigation measures and work with plastic-producing industries to implement liability and compensation schemes, among other actions. The report further recommends, inter alia: reducing the impact of marine litter from aquaculture and lost and abandoned fishing gear on coral reefs, such as through developing and applying regional regulations on lost and abandoned fishing gear; and strengthening partnerships to eliminate marine litter and plastic pollution, including by encouraging governments, the private sector and civil society to join the Global Partnership on Marine Litter.

Source: IISD website

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