Written by: Renee Street – Our Amazing Friend, PADI Course Director, and Big Time Ocean Lover
Although much of 2020 has been full of bad news for humanity, it hasn’t been all bad for our planet, and its non-human inhabitants. There have been multiple stories of recovery, relief, and abundance due to the temporary economic and cultural changes caused by the Coronavirus. These stories make us smile and hopefully will make us change.
A Global Pandemic
A pandemic is defined as:
An epidemic occurring worldwide, or over a very wide area, crossing international boundaries and usually affecting a large number of people.
The coronavirus in 2020 certainly has done that. However, the very definition is about how people are affected. In order to find something positive in this crazy year, let’s take a few minutes to focus on how this pandemic has affected our non-human neighbors as well as the planet as a whole.
Whales Are Having A Whale Of A Time
With international shipping slowed and cruise ships stopped, scientists recorded measurably quieter oceans; the oceans are the quietest they have been in 150 years. Since whales, dolphins, and other marine mammals use highly specialized sound communications, they are also highly sensitive to oceanic noise. There have been several studies of noise and its effect on marine mammals in recent years: one indicating that humpback whales alter their calling behavior in response to vessel noise (being closer, repeating calls, or waiting for a pause in noise pollution to call); another offering evidence of noise causing increased stress in right whales.
Now, scientists are using the quiet time to monitor changes in animal calls to see how the quiet might alter their behavior; this quiet offers a rare opportunity to study how the animals communicate without human noise interference. Studies using underwater hydrophones are currently underway in Alaska, Vancouver, California, and Florida, to name a few.
The hope is to be able to quantitatively prove the effect human noise pollution has on whales and other cetaceans with the hope of altering human negative impacts in the future.
Since national lockdowns began earlier this year, possibly attributed to the noise reduction, there have been increased sightings of whales, dolphins, rays, dugongs, sharks, and other marine megafauna closer to land than in past years.
The Reefs Get A Well Deserved Break
Scientists in Hawaii’s Hanauma Bay are using the temporary shutdown to study the relationship between people visiting the bay for swimming, snorkeling, and other recreational activities and environmental degradation.
Normally, there are 3000 visitors per day in this area, and now that number had decreased to virtually none. With so many factors (rising ocean temperatures, water runoff, human disturbance) that could be contributing to environmental damage, this break from direct human interference, gives scientists a chance to remove one factor and establish a baseline. Scientists suspect that humans disturb fish feeding behaviors, for example.
With cameras recording behaviors now, without human interference, scientists will later be able to compare and contrast behaviors as well as track rates of behavioral change when humans gradually return to the Bay. This quiet time can provide valuable information for the future of this marine conservation area.
It’s Been A Good Year For Our Turtle Friends
Thanks to India’s lockdown this spring, the beaches of Odisha, along the Bay of Bengal, were empty for the first time in decades. This allowed huge numbers of Olive Ridley turtles to come ashore to nest in broad daylight, something not seen in seven years. Without human interference, the turtles were estimated to have laid 60 million eggs in the sands of these Indian beaches.
In Phuket, Thailand, nests of leatherback turtles are more abundant than they have been in twenty years. In fact, no nests were discovered in the last five years due to human disturbance.
Would you like to learn more about turtle nests? Check out our FAQ about turtles nests here and learn more about what do when you just so happen to come across one.
2020 Has Made Some Crabs a Bit Less Crabby
Horseshoe crabs have remained largely unchanged for 450 million years earning them the nickname “living fossils.” On the east coast of the United States these animals have suffered from overfishing for their blood which is valuable for research for the pharmaceutical industry.
Their population declines also affect bird species who rely on their eggs as a primary food source. This year, with lockdowns causing a decrease in fishing in the area, the populations of both species seem to have stabilized.
Fish Got A Well Deserved Break As Well
Accordingly to satellite imagery, many coastal fishing fleets have stayed docked in ports for much of the first part of 2020. Fleets from China, Spain, Italy, and France have 50-75% reductions in coastal fishing activity compared to 2019.
There is hope that this decrease, despite being brief, can give some species in the Mediterranean and the Atlantic Ocean, with breeding seasons between March and June, some time to recover. This is great news considering 20% of global fisheries have collapsed and 60% currently exceed maximum sustainable capacity worldwide.
A Bit Better for Rhinos
In South Africa, endangered rhinoceros haven’t necessarily had a good year, but it has been a bit less bad. In late July, the South African Environment Minister announced that the number of rhinos killed by poachers in the first half of 2020 was half that of 2019.
This sharp decline is likely due to supply chain disruptions and travel restrictions. And while the numbers will certainly increase as the lockdown ends, it does provide evidence that a reduction in poaching is possible, if the right measures are put in place.
2020, A Very Good Year For Rivers
The Ganges river in India is one of the world’s most polluted rivers, full of industrial sewage, agricultural run off and tourism waste. Within one month of India’s lockdown, the water was not only visually cleaner, but samples in some areas (Haridwar and Rishikesh) even proved drinkable for the first time since 2000.
There have also been reports of water quality improvements in Malaysia, Singapore, China, and Italy all of which are trackable by satellite imagery.
Good For The Atmosphere
A number of recent studies have shown dramatic reductions in air pollution and CO2 emissions as countries imposed lockdowns due to the coronavirus.
One study, reported in Nature in May, noted a 17% decrease in daily Carbon Dioxide emissions by early April compared with the same period in 2019. At their peak, some countries saw an average decrease of 26%. The Center for Research on Energy and Clean Air released a report noting that as many as 11,000 air pollution-related deaths were avoided in Europe as coal and oil consumption plummeted. In April, power generation from coal fell nearly 40%, from gas nearly 30%, and total electricity generation fell nearly 13%. Nitrogen dioxide, a product of automobile combustion, on average in British cities in April. These drops in air pollution amount to levels not seen in at least 70 years which provides easier breathing and noticeably less smog to cloud views of our cities and countryside.
All of these studies point to how quickly humans can change our environment if less electricity were used, or we invest in cleaner forms of electricity. Yet another snapshot, of the positive impact human changes can have on the planet.
Will Humanity Keep the Good Going in the Coming Years?
These and many other examples of changes inadvertently brought about by the coronavirus, show what can be accomplished and in a short period of time. It is too soon to really analyze these changes and any possible long-term effects. However, this has given scientists a time period to study and contrast to the “usual” and possibly learn what changes we can make going forward.
Peter Thomson, the United Nations Secretary-General’s Special Envoy for the Ocean said this:
Amid the COVID-19 crisis, our chief responsibility lies in the pursuit of the common good: caring for those around us, heeding the strictures of our authorities, and supporting the heroic efforts of our essential services and health workers. But these dark times will soon end, and we will find ourselves stepping out on the road of recovery.
When we do, it is the high road to a sustainable world that we must take, not the low one returning to planet-polluting single-use plastics, profligate burning of fossil fuels and wanton denigration of nature. Human security demands that we build back better – the recovery road to a blue-green future lies ahead.
The blue element of this recovery is that of a sustainable ocean economy; for the ocean covers 70 percent of the planet, is our greatest buffer against climate change, providing us with everything from food to energy, from medicine to employment, along with the oxygen of every second breath we take.
Click here to read Mr. Thomson’s complete comments.