• Abi Smith

How COVID-19 May Be Impacting Our Reefs

As both divers and ocean enthusiasts, the vast majority of you must have wondered just how much of an impact this global pandemic is having on our beloved underwater world. Surely forcing human activity to a standstill must be good for our reefs? Oh, but then how can scientists and researchers continue their essential work to preserve our oceans? I invite you to join me in pondering these queries, broken down quite simply into both potential negative and positive impacts: How is COVID-19 impacting our reefs?

Let’s begin with the negatives:

1. Funding


With dive centres currently closed and internship programs unable to operate, it’s important to consider the lack of donations and funds going towards non-for-profit organisations and other marine conservation groups at this time; many of which rely on this means of income to survive. As people are losing their jobs worldwide and struggling financially, it’s expected that support for these causes will be less prevalent and could even be considered non-essential. Not only could this result in a destructive standstill for marine research efforts, but it could also be the tipping point for many NGO’s to close their doors permanently.

2. Research


As briefly mentioned above, the current enforced lockdown has not widely made exceptions for marine research efforts either in-water or in the lab. Field work such as monitoring ongoing restoration projects, vital data collection and invasive species containment have stopped, creating damaging irregularities throughout databases and pose long-term threats to thriving projects and reef species as a whole. Using my little Caribbean island as an example, here on Utila we are unable to conduct weekly visits to our coral nurseries, during which we clean harmful algae from growing fragments as well as removing pesky predators such as worms, snails and barnacles that feed on the fragments. Nor can we control the increasing population of lionfish, an invasive species here since 2008 that can reproduce every 3-5 days!

[Photo by Shaun Doyle: @shaundoylephotography]


3. Education & awareness


Now is a time that the online world is thriving. We’re spending hours a day on social media and streaming services, with some of us transitioning to working from home and even home schooling. We have unlimited information at our fingertips! However, do you remember the first time you saw a picture of a coral reef, compared to your first ocean dive? It could be argued that the health of our reefs depends upon human compassion. If people are unable to be in the ocean, to experience that other-worldly feel of diving or to create emotional attachment to marine life, there is less opportunity for compassion, and therefore less of a desire to protect it. “A tad dramatic” you may be thinking, but consider this: tourism is postponed meaning that there are no opportunities for people to encounter the ocean and reef; local events, fundraisers and marine wildlife sanctuaries are all closed, drastically limiting the ability to spread awareness and share knowledge to the public and younger generation. These months are the time in which college students plan their summer’s abroad and consider taking internships, people who are thinking of using their vacation time to try diving for the first time, or even families who take their children to the seaside to spend the summer months exploring and learning. Which of these life experiences made you fall in love with the ocean and wanting to protect it?

And here are the potential positives:

1. Fishing


By no means has this industry ceased all operations worldwide, but due to unemployment, closed restaurants and vessels remaining in port, commercial fishing practices have been forced to a halt. This article explores many interesting queries, so here are a few summaries:

- It has been observed that fishing activity is down by 80% in China and West Africa, allowing many species the opportunity to grow.

- This pause presents a research opportunity to explore a more sustainable approach to managing our oceans in the future.

- Although an intermission lasting for only a few months would have no real lasting impact, a slowdown in fishing practices for at least one full year would give time for most species to complete their spawning cycle, therefore allowing populations to recover.

- However, it is important to recognise that these positive impacts are relating to coastal fisheries. Many off-shore fisheries are still operating and due to COVID-19, are actually forced to remain at sea for longer without returning home, therefore removing more fish.

Overall, this pandemic is creating a “bump” in fishing practices, but due to increasing demand in human consumption, this slowdown will not likely generate a beneficial long-lasting change.

2. Physical contact

Just as humans are being asked to remain 6ft/ 2 meters away from one another, COVID-19 restrictions are also creating space for our reefs to benefit from social distancing. Whilst people are staying at home, coral reefs are not receiving visits from hoards of tourists every day, considering the 2 million people that visit the Great Barrier Reef every year. Though this level of tourism generates incredible revenue for the economy and provides thousands of people with jobs, it can have harmful impacts on the reef. Inexperienced snorkelers, divers and boat captains can collide with the reef, damaging coral structures and disturbing habitats for many marine species. Though we all miss seeing our favourite aquatic animals, it’s interesting to consider that they may be enjoying the break from us!

[Photo by Shaun Doyle: @shaundoylephotography]

3. Pollution


As I do not have access to the hard stats and facts, this point is quite simply my own speculation, so let’s consider the impacts... Due to an overall decline in human activity and therefore less movement from marine vessels including fishing boats, tourist related operations and cruise ships etc., there must be a reduction in the amount of chemicals currently being dumped into the ocean, thus benefitting reef health. This could mean less oil leaks from boats, harmful toxins from sunscreens, discarded fishing line and other marine debris, as well as a reduction in overall noise pollution generated from loud engines.

After exploring these potential impacts that COVID-19 may be having on our reefs, by looking at the positives it’s clear that for there to be any real benefit to our oceans, this slowdown of events and pause in human activity needs to be long-lasting. I am definitely not proposing that we remain in lockdown for years to come (AHH!), but I do think we can reflect upon this time as an opportunity to see into the future, and consider just how we as a race can turn these issues around and change our habits for the better, to protect our oceans.

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