Part 2: Uncomfortable silence: how is the ocean coping with the pandemic?
Updated: Oct 9
This is part two of a four part series focusing on the links between COVID-19 and conservation through the lens of forests; oceans; wildlife trade and climate change.
Author: T-CPI community members and scientists, Jack Daniel Trá and Davide Lelong
The ocean is a complex system and humans share a further complex relationship with it. While headlines cry of nature reclaiming its domain, in reality however, things are not so simple. As we will discuss, during these extraordinary times of COVID-19, our historical relationship with the ocean is shaking and not all things are benefiting nature, especially the places unknown to most of us in the far rolling reaches of the high seas and ocean depths. Here, the ocean is battling between renewal and destruction, produced by illegal human activities that go unregulated and continue to evade authorities.
In this dance of extremes where we see the best and the worst, we give a glimpse of what is happening in the hope to delve deeper and understand the complexity of our relation with the ocean, mysterious and ailing as never before, gasping for a revolution, ours.
Imagine living as a whale, and now imagine travelling back into the past, when humans crossed the sea only by sailing. Then, the only sounds you could hear was the movement of waves, storms passing and the voices of your companions. If you were a blue whale (Balaenoptera musculus), you could hear songs of your fellow whales from hundreds of miles away, as they produce vocalizations so low in frequency that we humans cannot hear them (Payne, 1995).
Marine mammals are sonic animals and their life in the sea revolves around sound. As mentioned before, they use it to communicate over large distances as in the large blue whale to use it to see things through echolocation as in bottlenose dolphins (Tursiops truncatus) or the little harbour porpoise (Phocoena phocoena). The use of hydrophones, technically underwater microphones, has helped us to shed some insights into their mysterious lives but it also showed us how their lives can be affected by the sound produced by human-activities in the sea. The sources are many and go from the use of sonar, the sound produced by airguns during seismic surveys, to the continuous sound made by recreational boats and the commercial ships (Nowacek et al., 2005; Richardson et al., 1995).
Since the economic explosion in the 1950s, marine traffic has increased exponentially and it is currently the main way goods are transported (www1). Frisk (2012) noted a correlation between the increase in commercial shipping and the increase in the ocean ambient noise, especially at low frequencies, where fin and blue whales communicate. It was estimated that between 1950 and 2007, the average ocean ambient at these frequencies has increased by 19 dB re 1uPa (it is important to report the reference unit as the decibel scale is a relative measure unit) that corresponds to an increase of 3.3 dB per decade. This increase in ambient noise impacts the large whales in multiple ways. It masks their sound and so individuals have a harder time trying to find potential mates or companions or it interferes with their echolocation (essential to find prey and orientation). In a more subtle way it increases their stress hormones that in the long-term can weaken their immune systems and make them more vulnerable to diseases and increased mortality (Nowacek et al., 2005). Examples have been documented in the Southern resident killer whales (Orcinus orca) in Washington waters (DFO, 2019; Lacy et al., 2017) and North Atlantic right whales (Eubalaena glacialis) in Massachusetts (NOAA, 2019; Rolland et al., 2012), two species classified as endangered.
After the twin towers attack on September 11, there has been a reduction in the commercial shipping traffic due to the following crisis and, accidentally, some researchers off the coast of Massachusetts were studying the faeces of North Atlantic right whales for stress hormones and were recording the ambient noise. Later, they observed a correlation between a reduced ambient noise due to reduced shipping traffic and lower levels of stress hormones in the faeces of whales (Rolland et al., 2019). While we should be cautious about drawing conclusions about causality, this accidental situation sheds lights on the complex relationship between marine mammals and the sonic environment they live in.
What about now, what is happening during this pandemic? Currently, researchers are rushing to collect data in these extraordinary circumstances (Thomson, 2020) but some patterns are starting to show up. As recently reported by Michelle Fournet, a marine acoustician at Cornell University in an article of ‘The Narwhal’ (Thomson, 2020): ‘We get a snapshot into life without humans. Then when we come rushing back, this window will close’. It is a temporary situation, but that allows us to observe and reflect about what we have done until now and to change our ways.
An article of Ocean Networks Canada (2020) reported that a new study in review, coordinated by David Barclay, from Dalhousie University’s Department of Oceanography, revealed a significant reduction in the ambient noise in the waters near Vancouver (British Columbia, CA) by 4 to 5 dB since the 1st of January 2020. This is probably due to the slowdown of the global trade activity and commercial shipping (Thomson & Barclay, 2020; WTO, 2020) and to reduced traffic of recreational vessels. For the endangered population of Southern resident killer whales, who count only 73 individuals, and inhabit the waters of Puget Sound between Vancouver Island (CA) and Washington (USA) this reduction would benefit their already precarious status. Indeed, with such reduction they would be able to communicate and use echolocation to hunt better and have reduced stress induced by continuous exposure to a loud ambient noise (DFO) but now, this remains pure speculation.
We are now seeing a major fall in the global fisheries catch, in many parts of the world. In the Mediterranean alone, the catch has collapsed by about 80% and for the catch that is being landed, prices have plummeted. Shrimp in northern Spain for example, are selling at only 10% of their pre-COVID price. For the Mediterranean region or in small island nations, fishing is their lifeline. In many coastal regions the only other alternative form of income to fishing is tourism, an industry also completely wiped out for the 2020 summer season by COVID-19 restrictions.
US Maine lobster, sold at $10 a pound (boat price), pre-COVID. Now however fishers are only managing to get $3 for the same effort. Kenyan fishers of Lake Victoria are currently seeing a boost in sales of their local catch due to short supply of frozen fish imports from China. It is thought however that once trade resumes to pre-COVID levels, Kenyan fishers will be once again undercut by cheap imports and because Kenya produces only one third of the fish it consumes.
With marine protection, monitoring and enforcement already weak pre-COVID, restrictions on movement of peoples, which include many marine monitoring personnel, have opened the floodgates to illegal and unregulated fishing in many parts of the ocean. Over 100 fishing vessels were found to be illegally pillaging waters in the south Atlantic off the coast of Argentina. Greenpeace have said that this has been a stealth operation by ships mainly from east Asia, as fishing occurred under the cover of darkness, with a coordinated shut down of satellite tracking systems as the boats synchronised their move into Argentinian waters.
Across the globe, governments and fisheries organisations are seeing monitoring and regulation relaxed. In the United States, NOAA fisheries have issued an emergency action allowing for the removal of fisheries observers onboard vessels and at fish processing plants for six months if necessary to comply with public health guidelines. The Canadian government has removed observers from all fishing vessels until the end of May, therefore no catch or discards oversight will be available.
The Indonesian fisheries ministry however maintains its guard, although their budget has been cut by over a quarter, due to reallocation of government funding to COVID-19. Since the end of 2014 Indonesia has banned foreign fishing boats from operating in its waters. However, since the beginning of March officials there have seized 19 foreign vessels found operating in their waters. Reports of illegal fishing practices, such as the destructive ‘blast fishing’, by local fishers have also been growing. Florida Keys also remains vigilant as 728 pounds/330 kilos of illegally caught fish were seized, caught by a commercial fishing vessel in a no-take zone in the waters of the Dry Tortugas off Key West, a federally protected area where it is prohibited to fish, dive, snorkel and anchor.
A very worrying factor for our ocean amidst this global crisis is that while many governments are cutting budgets for fisheries monitoring, capacity-enhancing subsidies continue to pour into the industry.
While oil prices hit a major 25 year low, governments continue to support the fossil fuel industry by making no change to fuel subsidies given to the fishing industry. Fuel subsidies make up around a quarter of total global fisheries subsidies. Allowing boats to travel further out to sea and for longer. While monitoring is down this causes great concern for over-exploitation and illegal fishing in many exclusive economic zones of various countries by foreign vessels and in the commons of the high-seas. 35 billion USD of subsidies are allocated each year, with fuel subsidies making up the largest single percentage at almost a quarter or nearly 10 billion USD. This figure equates to a startling 30 to 40% of the yearly value of all fish landed by boats worldwide. 60 percent of all fisheries subsidies directly encourage “unsustainable, destructive and even illegal fishing practices” says The Global Ocean Commission. With less regulation and monitoring on boats and in ports, capacity-enhancing subsidies and no United Nations international agreement yet formed on regulations of activities on the high seas, we are in very worrying times for ocean health indeed.
Lack of port restrictions also pose a threat to the import and export of illegally trafficked wildlife products.
Analysts at The Wildlife Justice Commission have observed that road and sea are now becoming the preferred method of transport for illegal wildlife products.
Malaysian authorities seized a record 6 tonnes of African pangolin scale arrived by sea on 31 March. Thankfully this shipment was seized in time as it’s thought with transport difficulties the pangolin scales are replacing some of Asia's demand for ivory and rhino horn and all coming through by sea.
The drop in ecotourism has affected conservation of the world’s most precious marine ecosystems. Sites that are heavily dependent on tourism revenues to finance some of their operations. In the Seychelles, for example, Aldabra Atoll is not sure how it’s going to continue with its monitoring because it’s entirely financed by revenues from tourism. However, with the reduced presence of the human species, some others and their vulnerable habitats are flourishing.
Kongkiat Kittiwatanawong, Director of Phuket Marine Biological Center, has said, as reported by Reuters, they have found 11 nests, the highest number in 20 years. Due to the usual bustling crowds of tourists on Thailand's beaches and busy fishing waters along its coasts. In the many years before the COVID-19 lockdown, few nests were found and many mortalities occurred to adult turtles entangled in nets. 84 hatchlings emerged in Phanga Nga province, after monitoring eggs for two months. Sea turtles rely on dark and quiet patches of beach to lay their eggs and areas free from obstructions such as sun loungers left on beaches at night.
With an enormous decline in tourist numbers and a curfew in place from 10pm to 4am, the turtles finally have the peace and quiet they need to bring the next generation into the world.
In Southern Thailand, dugong sightings have become more rare in recent years due to high levels of tourists, pollution and busy fishing activity in the waters they depend on to feed. Dugongs are a large aquatic mammal that are often seen in groups or herds and are found in shallow waters feeding on seagrass. With the calm of the lockdown and the International flight ban introduced by the Thai government, a herd of at least 30 dugong were seen grazing peacefully in the shallow seagrass meadows once again.
In June 2019 Thailand's dugongs made headlines as large numbers of fatalities were reported. Videos circulated of vets hand feeding an ill baby dugong, only to watch her die due to the large amounts of plastic later found in her intestines.
If nothing else this lockdown has shown us that if we give nature a chance, she will reveal herself as a strong and resilient force. However it has also shown us how destructive our impact is as we blindly and mindlessly take natural places for ourselves. In Thailand we prioritise beach parties and bucket cocktails, when the native sea turtles have been on this Earth for over 100 million years, and we humans only arrived less than 1 million years ago. There is enough space for us all on planet Earth, but only if we are mindful that Homo sapiens (us humans) is only 1 of an estimated 8.7 million species that share the land, sea and sky.
While it is still early to determine the long-terms effects of this extraordinary situation, we should take this pause to appreciate a world that seems to have been forgotten and discover there is another world around us, not made of touch or light, but one made of sound that is intertwined in our everyday lives.
So while we have been locked-down, the wild world has been speaking, listening, egg-laying and exploring. I hope in this period of stillness, we could discover the serenity of a bird song, the crashing of the waves and discover that beneath the waves there is another world, a wild world.