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COVID-19 and the environmental yo-yo diet
By: Mika Peck
Last updated: Wednesday, 10 November 2021
There are more COVID-19 theories circulating than toilet paper stocked up in a family household of 4 during the first weeks of lockdown. Most theories accompany a provocative argument such as mother nature’s revenge, anti-vaccination, degrowth and even vegan movements to name a few which have ambushed the daily media discourse. No judgement is passed on the different arguments, but it should be noted that the theories derive from sources with varying levels of perceived journalistic integrity and evidence. However, one common feature is prevalent among all the theories. That is the concept that human behaviour change will determine the impact of this pandemic - and that the circulating calls to action provide different opportunities that drive positive or negative change.
Researching communities and marine conservation one quickly realises that significant threats to marine ecosystems come directly from anthropogenic impacts. So, from a strictly ecological perspective, it’s fascinating to see nature recovering from pollution like never before. Around the world there are reports of air and water quality improving and wildlife encroaching recently uninhabited areas. Anecdotal reports from our network of coastal communities around Indonesian waters describe more frequent sightings of cetaceans, mantas and schooling fish, corroborating international reporting. Although this news is encouraging, for some wildlife this has not played out as well for coastal communities just yet.
Some developing trends suggest a chain reaction from consumers all the way down to small scale fisheries and coral reef ecosystems. For instance, when commercial buyers including hotels, restaurants and exporters have fewer customers, they buy less fish. This change in demand means less income for fishers. The reduction in income makes it more difficult for fishers to justify business costs, such as fuel for boats, if the demand from commercial buyers has disappeared. The next economically feasible option is to fish from shore or spearfish for sustenance and to sell extra at the local market. While this might sound like a sustainable plan there is a risk of overfishing of keystone species that play important ecological controls on reef ecology - generating imbalance in coastal ecosystems and impacting coral reef resilience. The scenario worsens if many local fishers in a particular village follow the same strategy, creating an abundance of the same species at local markets pushing the price down and minimizing incomes for all. The removal of certain choice species is of concern when you consider that this nascent trend is not isolated to one village but occurring throughout the network of fisher communities ranging from Bali to West Papua.
Policy makers are in a quagmire having to balance pressing economic and health policy. They are damned if they do and damned if they don’t and lack of action could possibly be the worst of all worlds. For the past few weeks Indonesia, like the rest of the world, has been practicing social distancing with some businesses allowing employees to work from home but this shut down is detrimental to informal workers that includes small scale fishers and service industry workers where this is not an option. Bali which thrives on tourism has seen an almost 100% drop in foreign tourism in April and closed many of its most popular beaches to encourage social distancing for over a month now. The government has recently taken decisive action essentially blocking all travel via air, land and sea in an attempt to reduce the chance of transmission from the annual mudik where as many as 20 million Indonesians travel to their home towns to celebrate the holy month.
Moving past the initial shock of the pandemic, more decisive action will have to be taken by leaders around the world at local, national and international levels. Understanding human behaviour can be difficult to predict, but we can leverage Kurt Lewin’s theory on behaviour to look for clues into the potential impacts to coastal marine ecosystems due to COVID-19. The theory states (B=f(P, E)) Behaviour is a function of personality and environment. There is already some anecdotal evidence of local fishers adjusting behaviours towards sustenance rather than business to meet the challenges of reduced demand for fish. Behaviour of middlemen has certainly changed in reaction to health concerns and logistical challenges, with some choosing to close shop leaving fishers more vulnerable to economic, health and food insecurity. This translates into a major challenge for marine conservation.
In Indonesia, many Marine Protected Areas (MPA) and Locally Managed Marine Areas are supported in part by the local fishing communities. Often successful marine conservation programs have local communities buy in, which creates compliance and the monitoring required for successful outcomes. Following Lewin’s change theory, now is the time to take advantage of mother nature’s perturbation, which has defrosted global business as usual, and make the changes needed for resilience in marine conservation. Policy makers would be wise to take a counter intuitive pathway and double down on conservation efforts rather than reducing budgets and reallocating to other programs. This does not mean returning to a conservation business as usual framework, but a more robust process inclusive of lessons learned as community resilience will be key in managing peripheral impacts of the virus. Conservation policies should be a combination of national, but more importantly local initiatives, addressing logistical challenges along with caveats of food security and diversification of income sources.
So, is COVID-19 a clear win for the environment? Much like yo-yo dieting it’s not very impressive if the drastic change over a short period of time is also reversed in a short period of time leaving you in a worse condition than before the diet. The change leadership of governments and behaviour of communities as we settle into this new norm will determine if the revival of the environment is a silver lining in this dark cloud looming over the world.
Coral reef research
Coral reefs are noisy environments and Indonesian fishers use wooden oars held close to their ears as amplifiers to determine when they are above healthy reefs for fishing. We are exploring the potential of acoustics in assessing reef health based on sounds generated by fish and the distinctive crackling of snapper shrimp.
Listen to this audio which was recorded as part of this research:
Watch this video which shows an example of a 3D reef image collected using low cost underwater cameras that we convert to 3D models to explore development of reef monitoring tools that can be used easily by communities yet recognised by policymakers.
Chris Rosado is a human behavioural scientist and researcher focused on change leadership, community development and conservation collaborating with Sussex Sustainability Research Programme (SSRP) project led by Dr Mika Peck focused on marine conservation in Indonesia.
Dr Mika Peck's work is dedicated to conservation of tropical environments through scientific research, grassroots conservation action and the support of environmental defenders. His scientific focus is on development of new tools to monitor the state of the environment, from tropical rainforest to reefs. Science is integrated within community-based approaches to explore opportunities for sustainable livelihoods in biodiversity hotspots in South America and South East Asia.
Find out more about Mika's Sussex Sustainability Research Programme (SSRP) project "SDGs, global commodity chains and environmental justice".
This blog is part of the
SSRP Forum: the Pandemic and Sustainability
This forum aims to contribute to the analysis of the impact of the pandemic on sustainability and the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), and to offer policy recommendations on how to respond to this unprecedented challenge.
The spread of coronavirus (COVID-19) presents us with an unprecedented challenge. We see losses of human life around the world, while one can hardly think what will happen if and when the pandemic reaches poorer countries with weaker economic and health structures. We see countries shutting down their economies to avoid the spread of the virus, as well as employing unprecedented measures of social distancing and population lockdown. We see whole economic sectors and households entering the intensive care of public financial support. In less than a month, the pandemic has redefined the priorities, parameters and boundaries of ‘what is possible’ in much of the world that we constructed since the Second World War.
The most urgent question is how to deal with the humanitarian crisis currently evolving and prevent it from getting out of control at a global scale. But a question we must also face is how the currently unprecedented mobilisation of public resources will be used to support our transition to a sustainable future, rather than a return to a socio-environmentally unsustainable past. One can hardly overstate the urgency of both these tasks. We in the Sussex Sustainability Research Programme (SSRP) community aim to contribute to this ‘mobilisation’ effort by setting up this Forum which aims to bring together experience, knowledge, ideas and recommendations to inform public responses to the pandemic and the implementation of Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) at both local and global levels.