30 Sep COVID-19: A Global Crossroads

How does a worldwide human health catastrophe relate to ocean sustainability? This question motivated an international group of 25 researchers, environmental managers, policy-makers, and other ocean advocates to gather online for a series of structured conversations in September. Representatives from CTC, Science Coordinator Kitty Currier and Marine Conservation Coordinator Evi Nurul Ihsan participated in the process, which was convened by CORDIO East Africa and Reos Partners. Participants considered the potential short- and long-term effects of the COVID-19 pandemic as they relate to seven key areas of ocean sustainability (Figure).

Drawing on personal experience, research, and imagination, participants explored positive and negative effects of the pandemic that are currently unfolding, scenarios that may arise in the future, and so-called exacerbators and alleviators—factors that may intensify negative outcomes or amplify positive ones.

Unsurprisingly, participants came up with no shortage of negative effects: disruptions to travel and commerce have prompted widespread job losses in the tourism and fisheries sectors, shrunk funding for marine management and conservation, and interrupted scientific monitoring and research, among other consequences. The digitization of business meetings, professional conferences, governance mechanisms, education, and other interpersonal exchanges has further disadvantaged people who lack reliable internet access, including many who depend on marine resources. Behavioral responses to the medical emergency have intensified or created new waste streams, as disposable facemasks, utensils, delivery bags, food packaging, and other single-use items proliferate, many destined to end up in the ocean.

Perhaps more surprising were the opportunities suggested by participants in approximately equal measure. Disruptions to entrenched routines have forced businesspeople, educators, artists, researchers, policy-makers, students, parents, and practically everyone to devise new strategies to remain effective. In some cases, these changes have led to new partnerships and innovations, and expanded engagement online. The enormous global response to the pandemic—from development of vaccines at an unprecedented pace to the nearly instantaneous rise of a sizable remote workforce—has demonstrated our collective capacity for behavioral change when the need is great. This is exactly the type of resourcefulness needed to address climate change, another crisis threatening human prosperity that demands immediate societal mobilization at the global scale.

The pandemic has caused undeniable suffering and hardship. The behaviors we adopt and perpetuate regarding our health, social relationships, livelihoods, economies, and institutions will affect our species and others. As observed by naturalist John Muir, “When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the universe” (My First Summer in the Sierra, chapter 6).

The COVID-19 and the Future of Ocean Sustainability report can be downloaded here.

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