Coral, COVID, and Climate Change:
How Coronavirus is Shaping the Dive Industry
By Casper Ohm
One of the only redeeming elements of the current global pandemic is emerging evidence of a massive revitalization of the natural world. Presumably, cutbacks in emissions and the notable absence of humans from tourist areas have given the planet time to heal. Mount Everest is visible from Kathmandu for the first time in a lifetime, there are reports from across the world of wildlife returning to areas they’d abandoned for decades.
As a diver, I’d like to think that the global shutdown would have a correlative, beneficial impact on ocean ecology.
As it turns out, climate change is a complicated issue, and viewing it through the lens of an unprecedented global pandemic certainly doesn’t make it any less so. That being said, in the midst of the pandemic there are some important observations to be made, and exciting opportunities for the future of our oceans.
...A Time of Respite
Limitations on tourism are certainly not good for the dive industry and those dependent on scuba-driven economies. But global travel restrictions have had the benefit of reducing the number of visitors to ocean ecologies to a trickle.
This is important for two reasons:
Firstly, heavily-used tourist sites, whether they be reefs or beaches, have been given some desperately needed breathing room. Developing corals in wading areas aren’t being trampled, sunscreen isn’t being washed off of bodies en masse. Reef fish are exhibiting more aggressive behavior, and it’s been speculated that they are returning to more normal feeding patterns in the absence of disturbances.
More importantly, this period of respite allows stewards of these areas to make observations specifically regarding the impact of tourism. Protected marine areas such as Hawaii’s Hanauma Bay plan on comparing data collected during the closure to observations made after reopening to gain insight on the impact of human recreation separate from other climate issues. This is a unique opportunity for us as divers to understand how our presence influences the areas we love, and develop strategies to lessen that impact moving forward.
It’s neither my intent nor my place to criticize the dive tourism industry. On the contrary, in my experience, no one is more invested in the well-being of ocean habitats than those dependent on them for their livelihood, and the community of divers willing to sacrifice their resources to experience them.
There are countless communities that rely on income derived specifically from scuba tourism, and speaking from a personal perspective the mental and emotional benefits derived from diving in these fantastic locations are weighty. Being exposed at a young age to the richness and diversity of life in tropical coral habitats is exactly what prompted me to pursue a career in conservation.
Conservation Through Recreation
But it’s not just tourist communities that rely on revenue from divers. Particularly in developing nations, marine parks and other conservation-minded endeavors rely on the revenue from the recreational dive industry for maintenance and to further fund restoration projects.
Some of the benefits of the lockdown have intrinsic value. It’s easy to appreciate the wildlife encounters, clearer skies, and a decrease in litter. It’s reassuring to know that in the absence of destructive behaviors, the earth will start to heal. But we also have to consider that alongside the cutbacks in the industries that are damaging to the ocean, NGOs and conservation groups engaged in habitat protection and restoration projects can’t currently operate. This is a big issue for projects that have a short window of effectiveness, and for those that require an immediate response.
The Coral’s Context
As we move forward into the global healing process, we ride the heels of the largest coral bleaching event in history. February’s high water temperatures led to the third such mass coral die-off on Australia’s Barrier Reef in the last five years. Current projections speculate that these mass events will become annual, coinciding with seasonal temperature fluctuations as acidification and hypoxia strain the tolerances of coral populations. We have also seen a rise in cases of the mysterious Stony Coral Tissue Loss Disease in the Caribbean. Both of these issues are treatable, and many are frustrated that efforts to mitigate the impact of coral destruction have been halted by our new pandemic-related regulations.
Despite the cutback in emissions and the undeniable physical respite this time of uncertainty has provided ocean habitat, rising ocean temperatures and the continued decline of healthy coral populations remain the primary concern of divers and ecologists across the world. Obviously ocean acidification and warming aren’t issues that can be fixed within the confines of the decade, let alone quarantine. Coronavirus has not been a miraculous reset button for our oceans, but it has been a great learning opportunity.
Rest, Research, and Change: Divers Moving Forward
These are uncertain times for the dive industry as a whole. No one can say for certain when the world and remote dive destinations will reopen, or under what parameters they will operate when the time comes. That’s disconcerting for anyone who loves or lives off of the water.
But if I’ve learned anything during my time waylaid during the crisis it’s that times of uncertainty, while terrifying and uncomfortable, are also great opportunities to make changes. Uncertainty gives us a chance to slow down and examine our routines. It gives a chance to practice and be patient, to set specific goals and work toward them without the anxiety of a deadline.
The recreational dive industry is important as a means of generating revenue to keep marine parks open and conservation projects running. It’s also essential to the tourism-dependent economies of these remote dive destinations. Learning to balance commerce and ecology is immensely difficult. The friction we feel when confronted with our impact on the planet is a good thing, it’s a symptom we’re undergoing a sort of species-wide adolescence in trying to figure out the balance. What we have is an opportunity to see exactly how recreational divers impact areas of heavy use, and a chance to determine specific and meaningful ways in which we can contribute to the health of our oceans moving forward.
Casper Ohm is the editor-in-chief at Water-Pollution.org.uk, an outlet intended to raise awareness of the alarming levels of water pollution in our planet’s oceans. When he isn’t scuba diving and collecting data in the far corners of the world, he lives in New York with his family.