By Aaron Swink

Two Hawaiian green sea turtle. Contributed photo

It’s troubling to say anything positive could ever come from a devastating pandemic. To say there is a silver lining in the COVID-19 pandemic would be too insensitive to nearly 200 million who fell ill and about four million who died. But there is. Just ask any fish, turtle, monk seal or any sea creature in Hawai‘i. Or even any human who cares about leaving a better world for future generations.

The year 2020 was a year like no other. Across the world, the COVID-19 pandemic disrupted nearly every facet of society. Besides the millions sickened and killed by the disease, isolation and uncertainty levied a heavy toll on the mental health of the world’s population. Economies were thrown into chaos, and many people found themselves suddenly out of a job or trying to find new ways to work in this strange new world.

Hawaiʻi was certainly not spared from global economic turmoil. In the early months of 2020, it was looking to be another gangbusters year for tourism. According to the Hawaiʻi Tourism Authority, from January to March more than two million visitors came to Hawaiʻi. However, as soon as travel restrictions and lockdowns began, tourism fell off a cliff. Fewer than 600,000 visitors arrived in the remaining months of 2020, a stark difference from the more than 10 million who visited in 2019.

A nearly-empty Hanalei Bay in August 2020. Photo by Aaron Swink

The tourism halt was especially noticeable at our beaches. Waikiki was an empty crescent of sand where only days before beachgoers were packed beach towel to beach towel. On Kauaʻi, the only sunbathers at Pōʻipu Beach were a pair of monk seals. The daily parade of tour boats cruising along Nā Pali was gone, and commercial fishers found themselves grounded with no restaurants to sell their fresh fish to.

Negative impacts of tourism on the marine environment are well documented. Even low-impact activities such as snorkeling and swimming can stress a delicate ecosystem when multiplied over hundreds or thousands of visitors per day at prime locations such as Kaua‘i’s Hāʻena or O‘ahu’s Hanauma Bay. However, the specific impacts of tourism are often difficult to ascertain experimentally. If you remember from 8th grade science, an experiment requires a “control” treatment. To determine the effect of snorkelers on fish behavior, for example, you would want to examine fish behavior at a location in both the presence and absence of snorkelers. But how to create an “absence” of snorkelers in a place like Pōʻipu Beach Park that sees thousands of visitors a day during peak season?

In this light, 2020 was a once in a lifetime opportunity for scientists and resource managers to collect data on the effects of human activities in the ocean. Biologists with the Hawaiʻi Division of Aquatic Resources and the University of Hawaiʻi sprang into action, collecting as much data as possible during this short window.

The COVID-19 pandemic offered a rare opportunity for scientists and resource managers to collect data and study nearshore areas during a time with low human presence. Contributed photo

“The pandemic presented a unique opportunity for DAR to study fish populations and benthic habitat during a time with extremely low human pressure. It isn’t often that the ocean can have a break from all the people and boats, especially in Hawaiʻi where we have such high rates of tourism. We were curious to see if that sudden change had an effect on the number and type of fish observed in nearshore areas and whether we could see any differences in habitat structure,” said Dr. Heather Ylitalo-Ward, the lead biologist for DAR on Kauaʻi.

The data collected during the pandemic is still being analyzed and will be incorporated into future management decisions. However, many of the changes in animal behavior observed during this time were quite striking. On Kaua‘i, turtles and monk seals hauled out at beaches normally crowded with people. Schools of surgeonfish, nenue, and ʻōʻio congregated at O‘ahu’s North Shore beaches. Newborn blacktip reef sharks were sighted close to shore in North Kona. Water clarity at Hanauma Bay increased by 40 percent, and larger fish were observed coming closer to shore than usual. At Molokini crater on Maui, which saw more than 350,000 tourists in 2018, DAR biologists observed greater fish populations especially among large predatory fish such as ‘omilu, uku, ulua and sharks. Previous DAR research had indicated that these fish are displaced by the presence of tour boats; this effect was confirmed during the pandemic when a reversal was observed during the absence of tour boats.

The DAR Kaua‘i Monitoring Team, left to right, Aaron Swink, Heather Ylitalo-Ward, Ka‘ili Shayler, McKenna Allen and Mia Melamed. Contributed photo

Not all shoreline activities decreased during the pandemic. Many residents found themselves spending more time at the beach. Non-commercial fishing, which is primarily done by residents, greatly increased during the early months of the pandemic. From March to May of 2020, an increase in shoreline fishing of 175 percent from the same period in 2019 was observed on O‘ahu. More than 1,000 people camped (vast majority of whom were unpermitted) on the beach at Polihale State Park on a weekend in July 2020, prompting the temporary closure of the park.

Now that travel restrictions are loosening, tourism has returned to nearly pre-pandemic levels. Many questions remain on how to make tourism’s impact on marine resources more sustainable moving forward. Several laws passed by the 2021 legislature and signed into law by Gov. David Ige address these issues. Act 46 created the Ocean Stewardship Fund, a $1 per-person fee on commercial activities in the ocean to fund DAR projects to enhance, conserve and restore marine resources. Act 48 establishes the creation of a non-resident marine recreational fishing license, with revenue to be used for marine fisheries management. Other new marine conservation laws include protection of sharks (Act 51), lay net permits (Act 45), and enhancing the Department of Land and Natural Resources’ ability to quickly respond to and manage rapidly changing resource conditions (Act 49).

As we emerge from the worst of the pandemic, many of us have found ourselves re-examining the things that are most important to us and looking for silver linings amidst the gloom. Will our social and economic future be the same as before? Or are new directions needed? One thing is for sure, our actions in the ocean have consequences and we must work together to conserve, protect and restore our island home.

  • Aaron Swink is the Kaua‘i Education Specialist with the Division of Aquatic Resources/Department of Land and Natural Resources. He is responsible for implementing education and outreach programs on Kaua‘i and conducts school programs, field programs, fishing education, aquatic science education, and general public outreach. Aaron is an aquatic biologist and also works on monitoring and research for the division. Contact swink@hawaii.gov for education inquiries.

 


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