Beginning March 2020 the Covid pandemic forced closings of businesses, organizations and borders and the ripple effect was felt across the globe by people, animals, land and marine ecosystems. Travel stopped. As disappointing as this was I wondered, what would the impact of these closures mean for coral restoration programs and nascent reefs dependent on tourist dollars for protection and preservation of these fragile and vital ecosystems? It’s taken months to reconnect with some of these restoration programs that cut staff in order to survive. Reduced tourist dollars meant less people to protect the reefs, to do outreach, education and the work of restoration. Results vary but one organization I found, Kahaluu Bay Education Center in Hawaii, shared positive observations. Kahalu’u Bay is a truly unique, 4.2-acre bay located in Keauhou, less than hour from the Kona Airport on the Big Island of Hawaii. The education center was established in 2011 to promote reef-friendly practices to visitors in an effort to protect the bay’s fragile ecosystem and ensure the bay and park remain a clean, safe and welcoming place for visitors and residents. In Hawaii, during Covid, the decline in tourism has taken an economic toll on the state, with annual visitor numbers dropping significantly from pre-pandemic numbers*. Although the number of visitors was slashed, this has provided a time for environmental healing for Hawaii – specifically within the coral reef ecosystems. During 5 months without tourists in 2020, natural environmental improvements and recoveries have been observed at Kahaluu beach park, “Because Covid gave us a moment of pause, it has seen this rejuvenation,” said Cindi Punihaole, director of the Kahaluu Bay Education Center. “The bay is bountiful with different species – new species that we haven’t seen for years… like the baby Akule. That’s because the bay is prolific right now!”.

How do we reduce local stressors?

Limiting the number of people in a coastal area, banning oxybenzone in sunscreens because they damage corals reproductive systems and creating programs to teach reef friendly, safe and welcoming practices to visitors are local steps that were taken in this Hawaiian bay. “We feel that this time that was allowed for the bay to rest when we closed in March 2020 has really shown how quickly the environment can recover if we allow it to recover,” said Punihaole. “Prior to Covid, we never allowed it to recover because we were looking at how many people we would get her to Hawaii on an economic scale.” Climate change leading to increased ocean water temperatures and increased ocean acidification causes bleaching and coral die offs. Coral reefs today are struggling to survive in the face of unmanaged tourism, pollution, overfishing, unsustainable coastal development, and climate change. Let’s allow the ripple effect of Covid closings to be increased rejuvenation of our coral ancestors and all of their descendants because protection and restoration of reefs are inextricably connected to our own health and survival.

Local, Regional, and Global Actions

These issues need to be addressed at a regional and global level. Look for next blogs with information about collaborations and organizations doing this important work regionally and globally.
Akule (Bigeye Scad)
Akule (Bigeye Scad)