Updated: Oct 12
From 2019 humanity faced an unprecedented, sudden, catastrophic event, which changed the way that we all see our world. With national lockdowns, international travel restrictions, global economic recessions and enormous pressures exerted on health resources, the Covid-19 pandemic has undoubtably changed the world... And not just the human world. Unforeseen changes to human activities; tourism, manufacturing, travel and habitat use, has had a huge impact on our wildlife and the environment. But how did the Covid-19 lockdown affect sharks? Can human activity on land really affect our oceans? And what can we learn from this?
The Progression of a Global Pandemic
The Covid-19 pandemic officially began after of the SARS-CoV-2 virus was deteted in a patient in Wuhan, China on January the 30th 2020. The most commonly accepted theory of the virus's origin, is that the disease jumped from a wild animal to a human host (this is known as "zoonosis") in a wet market in the area (Coll, 2020; WHO, 2022).
After causing the deaths of 500,000 people, the World Health Organisation (WHO) declared the Covid-19 outbreak as a 'Public Health Emergency of National Concern'. Within six months, there had been over 10 million Covid-19 cases and 500,000 human deaths across 216 different countries. The death count is still rising to this day (Coll, 2020; WHO, 2022).
In an attempt to control the spread of Covid-19 infections, many governments around the world implemented strict lockdowns, which demanded all citizens remain at home for weeks or months at a time. By April of 2020, it was estimated that 4.6 millions people around the world had been confined to their houses. Almost overnight, industrial, political, cultural, religious, educational and sporting activities ground to a complete stop (Coll, 2020).
Nature is Freed
During the Covid-19 national lockdowns in the first quarter of 2020, human movement and activities changed drastically all over the planet. We all experienced this on a personal level, but on a broader scale, these changes were enormous! The global demand for electricity dropped by as much as 30%. The use of transportation declined by 75%. International shipping dramatically declined and the number of international flights was reduced by 20% compared to the same period in 2019. As a result global trade ground to a halt and economies crashed (Coll, 2020). In short, the whole world stopped... Well, the human world stopped...
On the other side of the coin, all of these changes had a very positive impact on the environment! Studies showed water quality was noticeably cleaner and there were huge improvements in air quality over major urban centres. Greenhouse gas emissions, including carbon dioxide (CO2) and nitrogen dioxide (NO2), dropped dramatically on a global scale. Remarkably, the reduced movements of both people and machinery, even caused a measurable drop in seismic vibrations (Coll, 2020).
Dreaming of the Outside World
As we were all locked in our homes, fantasising about getting out, news articles began to appear detailing the sightings of all different kinds of wildlife - mammals, birds, reptiles, plants - in places we never would have expected to see them. In fact, in some areas "species richness" (the number of different species of animals and plants that can be found in one place) actually increased (Coll, 2020).
In the marine environment baleen whales, manatees, dugongs, orcas, dolphins and sharks were being spotted in the most unlikely of places (Coll, 2020).
In reality, this did not mean that wildlife populations were actually increasing, but the reduced disturbance (thanks to humans being locked away) was changing the behaviour of many species (Coll, 2020).
In the oceans, the dramatic reduction in maritime traffic gave marine creatures a reprieve from disturbing "noise pollution" and harmful collisions with boats. This meant that marine animals, like sharks, shifted their distributions in order to exploit a much larger habitat. The drastic improvement to water quality in rivers, canals and along coastlines, also meant that it was much easier to spot some of these critters (Coll, 2020). Whilst we were away, the animals could play!
A Reprieve from Fisheries
Marine animals were also given a huge reprieve from fisheries during to the Covid-19 lockdowns. Thanks to the the closure of the hospitality industry, the local and global demand for seafood was unseasonably low and many fisheries around the world simply closed up shop (Coll, 2020).
At the end of April 2020, the fishing activity of global industrial fleets had declined by as much as 6.5% compared to the same period in 2019. In Peru (the country with the largest commercial fishery in the world), fishing activity dropped by 80% (Coll, 2020).
Spain is one of the largest shark fishing nations on the planet, but during the lockdowns, their fishing activities were reduced by as much as 50% overall compared to preceding years. In Indonesia - one of the largest global players in shark fishing and finning - trade in shark products declined by as much as 70% during the lockdowns (Coll, 2020) Mongabay 2020).
Not only were sharks suffering reduced pressure from targeted fisheries, but they were also enjoying a reprieve from the threat of "bycatch". Normally sharks suffer enormous mortality globally thanks to their incidental capture in fisheries targeting other commercially valuable species. During the lockdowns this pressure was noticeably lessened (Coll, 2020).
Healthy Oceans = Healthy Humanity
Scientists are working on determining the long-term impacts these short-term changes may have had on the populations of endangered species, like sharks. But they think that the changes to the behaviour and distribution of animals as a result of the Covid-19 lockdowns will only be temporary, and will probably revert now that the human world has opened up again. Yet the improvements in our absence should still act to remind us that we are doing enormous damage to our natural world (Coll, 2020).
Our relentless consumption and determination to pursue unlimited growth at the rate prior to the Covid-19 pandemic were at the absolute epicentre of all our global environmental issues. In our oceans, intense overfishing has driven a quarter of all sharks and rays into risk of extinction. Our greed has decimated marine habitats, produced incessant pollution and the continuous release of harmful invasive species into varying aquatic ecosystems. Climate change has created ocean acidification and deoxygenation, increasing sea surface temperatures and raising water levels around the world. We are now facing a change in climate and loss of biodiversity so enormous that scientists are calling our age the next great extinction event (Coll, 2020).
And yet, we rely on our seas for our own survival! Our oceans cover 70% of our planet. They are vital for regulating the Earth's climate; sequestering carbon from our atmosphere to buffer us from the harm of anthropogenic climate change. The oceans cycle water around our world, bringing with it a wealth of elements that we need. The oceans produce as much as 80% of the oxygen in our atmosphere, that we must breathe to live! Seafood is a vital source of food, and provides subsistence and income to millions. Other ecosystem services from our oceans are vital to the global economy and support communities all over the world. The oceans are the cradle of all life on our planet, and at the heart of many cultural values that we hold dear. And our oceans are filled with a myriad of wonders; beautiful and magnificent creatures that all have a right to life (Coll, 2020).
Turning a Crisis into an Opportunity
What the Covid-19 catastrophe has offered us, is an unforeseen and incredibly valuable opportunity to assess how a reduction in human activities can affect the environment. The lockdowns have taught us that nature responds very quickly to a reduction in human activity and this should emphasise to us the enormous impact that we have. With this comes the hard-to-swallow realisation that big changes are needed for us to reduce the magnitude of damage we inflict on our natural world (Coll, 2020).
"The COVID-19 pandemic... underscores the urge to rethink the rate & intensity at which humans exploit natural resources"
- Coll, 2020
But we should choose not to see this as daunting or intimidating, rather it is an opportunity! We now know that there are positive consequences when we change and maybe this can inspire us to do better. As we begin to rebuild our economies and our societies after Covid-19, maybe we can choose to 'Build Back Better' and work towards a 'Green Recovery' (Coll, 2020).
If there is one thing that the Covid-19 pandemic has taught us, is that we are all in this together! Whilst being trapped, isolated in our homes, somehow the very act of having to stay apart brought us all together. Humankind became united towards a common goal. Back at the beginning of 2020, it all seemed so hopeless, so insurmountable, but against all the odds, by working together, humanity rose up against Covid-19. If we can bring the same spirit, the same unity, to our fight for a more sustainable future, there is no telling what we might achieve!
To learn more about ocean deoxygenation, you can check out How Low Can You O?
Coll M (2020). Environmental effects of the COVID-19 pandemic from a (marine) ecological perspective. Ethics in Science and Environmental Politics, 20, 41–55. Access online.
Penketh L, Schleimer A, Labaja J, Snow S, Ponzo A & Araujo G (2020). Scarring patterns of whale sharks, Rhincodon typus, at a provisioning site in the Philippines. Aquatic Conservation Marine and Freshwater Ecosystems, 31:1, 1-13. Access online.