The potential benefits of COVID-19 on marine wildlife

Written by Rebecca Greatorex

As we continue to experience a global pandemic on a scale many of us have never seen before, I would like to discuss a rather overlooked group of animals which have also been affected by this global crisis – marine creatures. However, unlike us, they are likely to be affected in a considerably more positive way. News of marine wildlife have been largely absent from the media for the last few months, except the occasional pictures of crystal-clear waters, empty beaches and species returning to urbanized areas. This is unsurprising given that over half of the world are in lockdown and there has been very few people around to document any potential changes to marine life. Therefore, I would like to talk about a few of the main ways these species are likely to benefit (and potentially suffer) from a lack of anthropogenic interaction.

Holidays are cancelled

Lack of tourism is a large factor in why marine wildlife may substantially recover during this pandemic. For a long time, we have known that it can be a serious issue for marine animals, particularly those which nest in coastal areas. One such group of animals are sea turtles, who in recent years have had to share their nesting beaches with visiting tourists hoping to witness this natural phenomenon first-hand. Unfortunately, research has shown that this can be particularly detrimental to their reproductive success. During COVID-19 there has been an unprecedented increase in turtles returning to nesting beaches, such as Leatherback Turtles reportedly returning to beaches in Thailand after a 5-year absence. All of which is thanks to the fact that for the first time in decades their nesting grounds are empty.

turtle hatchlings
A crowd of tourists on a Bali beach watch hatchlings as they make their way to the sea, but this can be extremely stressful for these tiny turtles

Another likely beneficiary from empty beaches are seals, whose populations have previously been affected by human contact. Unfortunately beaches around the UK where humans can come into close contact with seals, again usually only as well-meaning sightseers, usually results in seal pups having higher stress levels and an increase in the rate of pup abandonment by the mothers. Luckily this year those beaches remained largely empty, giving pups and the mothers a much needed reprieve this year. However as we ease lockdown in the coming weeks the seal pups will still be vulnerable, so it will be important to continue to give them space for the rest of the year.

seal pups
A group of onlookers close in on a seal pups and their mothers in Norfolk

With many other marine species reproducing during the springtime, we may see an increase in the number of offspring for lots of marine populations this year. However it will also be a priority to reduce the imminent effects tourism may have on species in the coming few months too, as we begin to ease lockdown restrictions and return to normal. Hopefully research that comes out of lockdown will provide essential evidence that can be used to better protect our coastal ecosystems and nesting sites in the future. It will likely illustrate the importance of reducing disturbance, particularly during breeding seasons.

Gone fishing? I hope not!

The NFFO has reported that, due to reduction in demand from shops and restaurants closing, commercial fishing and landing quantities have also been significantly reduced in the UK and abroad. This essentially means that there are fewer fishing boats out at any one time, and less fish are being removed from the population. Countless studies have shown that a reduction or ban on fishing in certain areas or times of year can significantly help the recovery of fish populations which would otherwise be declining in numbers.

fishing vessels
Fishing vessels have largely stayed in harbours during lockdown

This current global reduction in fishing has been likened to the reduction in fishing efforts seen during the world wars where, due to a lull in fishing, fish stocks and species were shown to replenish and recover. Reduced fishing can also give organisations like IFCA more time to publish important information on potentially vulnerable species. This could help avoid dangerous fishing quotas in the future, that are often near to or over maximum sustainable allowable catch.

A quiet(er) place

Noise pollution within the marine environment has also recently been found to be a very prominent issue within certain groups of marine animals, most notably cetaceans. Loud persistent noises created by sonar, engines and fishing gear can confuse animals and cause a range of problems, including – loss of hearing, increase in strandings, decompression sickness, breakdown in communication and collisions with ships. The decrease in fishing and recreational use of boats, particularly during the start of lockdown, may have positive benefits to ocean ecosystems.

ships-whales
Large shipping vessels not only create marine noise pollution, but also strike confused whales as a result

Research is already being published on the reduction in noise pollution in the Northern Pacific, an important area for Orca populations. While it is not known how this will affect animals in the long term, if at all, this significant reduction in noise is likely to have positive benefits in the short term, specifically for species whose interactions reliant on sound.

Not all good news

On a darker note, there have also been some unseen, yet highly preventable, consequences to the pandemic as well. With the increase in demand of disposable personal protective equipment (PPE), such as gloves and masks, there has been an unprecedented increase in discarded PPE found on beaches. Plastic pollution is already known to be one of the biggest threats to marine wildlife and the consequences of animals ingesting plastic are well known. This is highly preventable pollution which, in many cases, can be solved by individuals disposing of PPE appropriately. However, we may find that PPE in marine environments could now be an additional problem some marine species will have to face for years to come.

PPE
Gary Stokes, co-founder of marine conservation group OceansAsia, shows face masks washed up on the beach of Soko Islands (https://uk.reuters.com/article/uk-health-coronavirus-hongkong-environme/discarded-coronavirus-masks-clutter-hong-kongs-beaches-trails-idUKKBN20Z0PI)

Assessing the outcome

Overall, I would say that as a result of COVID-19 a large majority of marine species will benefit from us staying at home. There are also many habits and new ways of living which should be encouraged to continue after the world emerges from lockdown. By limiting unnecessary travel, pushing for more sustainable food sources, and being more responsible with the disposal of plastic items, we can all positively impact, not just marine wildlife, but our whole global ecosystem.

Things to consider

There are a lot of questions being raised about the environment in response to the pandemic. There will be obvious changes in carbon dioxide emissions during the year, and considerably less disturbance of the environment in terms of fishing and tourism. What respite effect will this have on wild populations and potentially recovery of marine species? If recovery is evident, will we use this information to implement new regulations and restrictions to protect wildlife? This is a fantastic opportunity to discover the effect a reduction in disturbance has on wild populations. Research coming out of this pandemic will be essential when deciding on and implementing new environmental and conservational policies for the protection of marine wildlife.

Bex has recently completed a BSc in Marine Biology at the University of Plymouth. She has been accepted onto the MSc Marine Biology programme in Plymouth where she hopes to continue her career in research. She is particularly interested in stress physiology in the context of current environmental stressors such as pollution and temperature. You can find her on linkedIn here and twitter @bexgtx.

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