As the COVID-19 pandemic spread last spring and people throughout the world went into lockdown, a unique style of news stories began to emerge—the idea that, in the absence of people, nature was returning to a healthier, more pristine form. There were viral reports of dolphins in Venice, Italy's canals, and pumas in Santiago, Chile's streets. However, new research indicates that the true impact of abruptly removing people from so many environments is far more complex.
“It was amazing how different the responses were,” says Amanda Bates, an ecologist at Memorial University in Newfoundland and Labrador who leads an international team of over 350 researchers to explore how lockdowns have impacted the natural world. “It is impossible to say whether the impact of people's unexpected disappearance was positive or negative,” Bates adds.
The team gathered and examined data from hundreds of scientific monitoring programs, and media sources from 67 different nations. They did find indications of nature benefiting from the dramatic decline in air, land, and ocean travel, as many would expect.
Reduced air and noise pollution helped wildlife as an industry, natural resource exploitation, and manufacturing diminished. There was less litter on beaches and parks, and some beach closures left the shoreline open to animals. In Florida, for example, beach restrictions resulted in a 39 percent increase in loggerhead turtle nesting success. Ocean fishing has decreased by 12%. And fewer animals have been killed by vehicle impacts on roads and in the water. Ocean noise, which is known to disturb several marine species, has decreased dramatically in numerous places, including the busy Nanaimo Harbour in British Columbia, where it has decreased by 86%.
However, there were other drawbacks to the lack of humans. Lockdowns hampered conservation enforcement and research operations, and illegal hunting and fishing surged in many areas as impoverished, desperate people sought ways to compensate for lost revenue or food. Ecotourism operations, which offer financial support for many conservation efforts, have dried up, and many restoration projects have had to be canceled or postponed. Parks that were available to the public were flooded, with huge crowds. Hikers also widened pathways, ruined habitats, and crushed rare flora in several locations.
Lockdowns, according to the researchers, will have a significant impact on invasive species control operations. Failure to eradicate invasive mice from distant seabird nesting islands could result in the loss of almost two million chicks this year alone.
According to Bates, the magnitude of these negative consequences was unforeseen. “I anticipated we would see more positive impacts,” she says, adding that it demonstrates how much some ecosystems need human support to survive. “I do not believe some of these systems would have survived if we had not intervened.”
And some of the adjustments triggered complex cascades, making it difficult to separate the positive from the detrimental. Snow geese, for example, are typically targeted to prevent them from grazing on crops as they migrate north across the United States and Canada. However, because they experienced less hunting pressure this year, they arrived in the high Arctic larger and healthier than usual, according to Nunavut hunters. It may be excellent for the geese, but they also graze fragile Arctic tundra and ruin habitat for other species, several geese will have long-term consequences for the rest of the ecosystem.
According to Rebecca Shaw, chief scientist for the World Wildlife Fund, As the world gradually returns to normalcy, the data gathered during this period of disruption will be vital in developing more effective forms of conservation on how humans influence their surroundings. “It will be fascinating to monitor how these responses change over time when human mobility returns to normal, and to use this information to better design conservation projects to increase biodiversity both close to and far from human populations,” she says.
The Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society's senior strategic advisor, Alison Woodley, concurs. She believes that the positive effects shown are likely to be transient and that developing more resilient conservation mechanisms will be critical. “The common thread is the necessity for long-term, consistent, and appropriate funding to ensure conservation resilience and that the positive aspects of conservation outweigh the negative,” she says.
According to Woodley, this will benefit not only nature but also humans. There is a growing recognition that safeguarding the environment provides our best defense against future pandemics by minimizing human-animal contact and conflict and can lead to viruses migrating from one species to another.
“Preventing future pandemics and mending our life support system requires humans to make decisions and manage vast swaths of land and ocean, as well as manage the remainder of the ecosystem sustainably. And to do so in a seamless manner,” Woodley explains.
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