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.