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Marine scientist hopeful important lessons will be learnt from pandemic

By Orville Williams

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Following global reports of ocean health improving over the past year with reduced commercial activity, one Antigua-based marine scientist is “cautiously optimistic” that residents and visitors to Antigua and Barbuda will begin to adopt more eco-friendly practices when interacting with marine ecosystems.

The lockdowns caused by the Covid-19 pandemic forced countless marine vessels to remain docked for months, while suspending the operations of hotels and other tourism-related businesses and reducing the demand for seafood in some areas.

This, of course, had an unwanted economic impact on many countries, but the environmental impact on the other hand, was very much welcomed by conservationists.

Cruise ships – though fun for vacationing passengers – are known to damage fragile marine ecosystems due to practices like irresponsible disposal of sewage, and their heavy use of fossil fuels contributes significantly to rising emissions worries.

Cargo ships similarly damage the environment. In fact, according to the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), reductions in shipping traffic were expected to decrease the sector’s Greenhouse Gas emissions, [as] international shipping represents about 2.5 percent of those emissions.

That reduction, it said further, would “benefit the ocean by slowing the pace of acidification, warming and deoxygenation.”

Tourism is another sector adversely impacted by the pandemic, but in the short term, coastal ecosystems will have benefitted from the reduced pressure caused by activities like boating and diving, along with the reductions in wastewater emissions from largely unoccupied hotels.

The reduced demand for seafood – due to closed restaurants and hotels – has also benefitted the environment by temporarily preventing overfishing. This, experts believe, could have led – though not to any significant degree – to the recovery of depleted stocks in waters across the world.

Now, as far as Antigua and Barbuda is concerned, there hasn’t been any thorough analysis done yet, but Marine Ecologist Ruleo Camacho, says there is already some evidence of improvements due to the aforementioned reductions.

“There have been indications that there has been some improvement in the overall nearshore [marine] ecosystem health. We out in Nelson’s Dockyard National Park…we need to confirm this, but we think we’re seeing seagrass recovery because of reduced yachting.

“Naturally, if you have a decrease in activity, you will see improvements in marine ecosystems because you’re exerting less pressure on them. This is not just less pressure from persons being in the water or around it, you can [also] think about less pressure from yachting and the boats anchoring in a seagrass bed [for example].

“You’re also thinking about less pressure because less businesses and restaurants are open, so you have less chances of pollutants being emptied into the marine areas.”

The suspension of the local tourism sector for nearly a year is certainly nothing to scoff at, as hundreds of residents will attest, but the ripple-effect on the environment can equally not be ignored.

As Camacho explained, it is in understanding the importance of a balance between the two, that the sector can be sustained in the long term.

“I’m not against tourism and I think tourism is necessary, but I’m hoping this pandemic allows us to realize that without a healthy marine environment, tourism is going to fall flat on its face. So, it’s in all of our interests to maintain the health of the marine environment and the environment on a whole, if we want to ensure that our livelihoods can continue into tomorrow.”

The pandemic arguably caused something of an environmental renaissance across the island, with many people who hadn’t before, having an increased appreciation for the space around them.

This was for the most part because there was not much else to do, but regardless of the starting point, Camacho says he is hopeful that renaissance will extend to the marine environment.

“I think we’ve seen that throughout the island, especially on a local basis. More people going on hikes and you also have more reporting of littering. I don’t know if it’s because we have increased littering or now, we just have more people seeing it. I’m hoping it’s a similar thing that we’re seeing in the marine environment, where there’ve been so many good stories coming out.

“There are areas around the world that have seen improvements in the marine space that can be linked to the reduction in particularly tourism activity and all that [that] brings, so I’m hoping that persons – now being a little bit more aware – will care a little bit more about the environment and demand that the suppliers of these activities be even a little bit more environmentally-friendly.

“I hope that applies not only on an individual level, but also to the organizations – the cruise ships, hotels [and other] large-scale operators who, over time, play such a big role. I’m hoping that they understand the earth can heal if we allow it to and I’m hoping this [brought the realization] that we can do more to allow the earth to heal, rather than what we’re doing right now.”

For transparency, Camacho also disclosed that there has been some negative impact from the pandemic and the subsequent lockdowns, with more persons looking to ‘live off the land’, due to their financial constraints.

“You have an increase of what I’d call shore-based fishing activity and that can actually have a negative impact, because these persons aren’t necessarily targeting mature fish species and they’re not necessarily the persons who think about the environment and the sustainability of what they’re doing.

“Because you’ve had increased [occurrences] of that, you’re likely to have some negative effects on the ecosystem,” he said.

Camacho is certainly not alone in hoping for a better environmental future coming out of the pandemic. Along with the many conservationists that have their fingers crossed, there are countless plant and fish species in the oceans that are depending on us to do the right thing.

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