The Covid-19 pandemic has destroyed societies and damaged the global economy in innumerable ways, and with unknown consequences. The extent of the damage has yet to be seen as the world is now experiencing a second wave of the virus, with the situation expected to get worse before it gets better.
However, an unforeseen outcome of the pandemic and lockdown has been the positive environmental effects that are being experienced on a global scale, most specifically the changes to our ocean.
The short-term impact of Covid-19 on the ocean has been overwhelmingly positive. Key industries that contribute to ocean pollution, including tourism, fishing, and international shipping have been drastically reduced due to the pandemic. A survey conducted by the Economist, on a World Oceans Initiative webinar showed how the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic affected tourism (by 70.7%), fishing (10.4%), offshore oil and gas (by 7.2%), and shipping (by 6.2%).
Due to Covid-19, there has been a significant decrease in pollution, especially in greenhouse gas emissions. A review by the International Energy Agency predicts a 5% reduction in global greenhouse gas emissions in 2020. This is not only good for the environment in general but for the ocean too, as a reduction in greenhouse gas emissions is correlated with the slowdown of its warming, acidification, and deoxygenation.
There has been a massive decrease in carbon emissions because of the international disruption of business across different industries. For example, international shipping has suffered a 10% decline in container traffic in 2020. This is an unprecedented amount of traffic and has certainly contributed to reducing carbon emissions produced by container ships as the international shipping trade accounts for 2.5% of global greenhouse gas emissions.
Another factor that contributes to the reduction of carbon emissions that affect the ocean, is the reduction in fossil fuel production and use. For example, there has been a reduction in demand for oil, trading below zero for the first time in history. This has not only slowed down the production of oil but has also made obvious the overwhelming supply and overproduction compared to the diminishing demand.
Therefore, governments are presented with an opportunity to invest in environmentally-friendly and sustainable methods of energy production in order to curb the rise in greenhouse emissions.
Nevertheless, the Covid-19 pandemic has instigated a new environmental problem. There has been a great deal of plastic pollution created largely from the disposal of single-use face masks as well as plastic gloves, further worsening the world’s ocean plastic pollution problem. These masks ensnare fish and can be mistaken for jellyfish and consumed by marine creatures.
Additionally, with the oil industry in disarray, the price of producing plastic products has never been cheaper and for this reason, the production of single-use plastics has increased, especially as people are ordering more takeout meals than usual.
No More Tourism
According to UN Environmental Programme tourism is considered one of the leading causes in the destruction of ocean environments, especially for coastal areas around the world. However, the Covid-19 pandemic has caused the collapse of the tourism industry on a global scale due to global travel restrictions. Although the economic problems caused by the pandemic are dire, there are many short-term environmental benefits to the situation created by the restrictions.
Firstly, there has been less stress on marine life around coastal areas and coral reefs as the reduction of recreational activities have allowed for some recovery. Boating, which disturbs and harms marine life, has been significantly reduced, along with recreational fishing that depletes local fish populations. Additionally, the reduction of scuba diving worldwide (effectively eliminating unsustainable diving tourism), has resulted in some respite for many coral reef ecosystems.
Furthermore, and due largely to a decrease in tourism, coastal pollution has been greatly reduced. With suncream lathered tourists staying away from the beach, littering is down and the ocean has been able to start reclaiming some coastal regions as well as beginning to recuperate from severe coral bleaching. Plus, wastewater pollution from coastal hotels and attractions has stopped, giving beaches and their populations a rest from the constant inundation of pollutants.
What’s important to any approach to ocean pollution in the post-Covid recovery is treating it as a human health issue.
Finally, coastal construction has seen a significant reduction in recent times. As construction along the ocean’s coast plays a large role in environmental destruction, this has surely had short-term benefits for the coastal environment. Nevertheless, these benefits will be short-lived as the situation for coastal ecosystems will be worsened by the redevelopment of these coastal construction projects after the quarantine.
A Break From Overfishing
Another big industry affected by global measures to contain the Covid-19 pandemic has been the fishing industry. Research by the UN’s Global Sustainable Supply Chains for Marine Commodities shows that the world’s demand for marine products such as shrimp, crab, and the octopus has been significantly reduced over the past year. This is for a number of reasons, such as lack of demand, lockdown restrictions, and the difficulty of ensuring Covid-19 sanitation on fishing boats.
With the complete disappearance of the tourism industry in many less economically developed countries, their fishing industry has suffered immeasurable losses, having all but
collapsed. Alternatively, in many wealthier countries such as the United States, the majority of commercial fish products are used in restaurants. As many restaurants have been closed there has also been a reduction in the demand for fish products there.
The real question is, does this reduction of overfishing make a difference, and will the ocean be able to recover its depleted stocks over the lockdown?
The ocean needs around 10-15 more years of reduced fishing in order to completely recover depleted stocks. This can’t be achieved over the Covid-19 pandemic and can only be achieved through governments putting in place more fishing restrictions and better management of marine environments. This means that although the ocean has had time to recover some stock, the ocean’s supply of fish has not adequately recovered over lockdown.
What’s more, the ocean could experience increased unsustainable fishing practices as the global fishing industry attempts to recover faster after the pandemic. That said, the fast recovery of some of the ocean’s fish supply over the Covid-19 pandemic is very encouraging and offers an opportunity for governments and fisheries to develop more sustainable fishing policies coming out of the pandemic.
Looking To The Future
The Covid-19 pandemic poses a rare opportunity for governments and organisations to witness the short-term benefits for the ocean when the ever-shifting cogs of the economy slow down. The rates of ocean warming, acidification, and deoxygenation have slowed, coastal ecosystems are recovering and the ocean’s fish population is slowly recuperating.
However, this might only be a temporary phenomenon, and going forward, governments should enforce more sustainable and blue policies in order to foster the recuperation of fish stock and ensure a more sustainable future for our oceans.
If given the opportunity, our ocean can and will continue to regenerate.