Amid shutdown, respite for Hawaii's ecosystem

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Coronavirus struck Hawaii during humpback whale season, and researchers hope to learn from the data collected during the unprecedented tourism shutdown.
Coronavirus struck Hawaii during humpback whale season, and researchers hope to learn from the data collected during the unprecedented tourism shutdown. Photo Credit: HTA/Tor Johnson

Anecdotes of environmental rejuvenation are flowing in from all corners of the Hawaiian Islands. Spinner dolphins are spending more time in the Island of Hawaii's Kealakekua Bay, coming closer to shore than they have been seen in decades. Hawaiian green sea turtles are lounging on beaches they previously avoided. Endangered nene geese in Hawaii Volcanoes National Park are getting a break from dodging cars. Water clarity is up, smog is down and the Aloha State's wildlife are loving every minute of it.

Amid a sea of negative news it is natural to look for a life raft of positive developments. In Hawaii, a destination reliant on its natural beauty for much of its allure and most popular attractions, one bright spot during the pandemic has been a much-needed respite for overtaxed beaches, bays, parks and wildlife.  

Aloha State scientists and researchers, meanwhile, are scrambling to put some data behind the anecdotal observations. The tourism shutdown caused by the Covid-19 pandemic has offered an unprecedented opportunity to study the impacts of 10 million visitors on the islands' ecology, and perhaps develop better plans for managing the most precious and popular resources.

Kuulei Rodgers, principal investigator at the Hawaii Institute of Marine Biology's Coral Reef Ecology Lab, has been studying the archipelago's reefs since 1992, and is using the sudden shutdown to observe the human impacts on one of the state's most visited nature sites, Hanauma Bay. The protected cove on Oahu is part of a Marine Life Conservation District and attracts thousands of beachgoers and snorkelers each day, roughly 850,000 a year.

"Hawaiian monk seals are endangered and you don't see many of them in the main Hawaiian Islands," Rodgers said. "Now every time we go to Hanauma Bay we see them. There were two there yesterday. Before, with all the visitors, there's no way they would come on the beach, and it would be super rare to see a monk seal in that area. We're also seeing big fish like jacks (giant trevally) coming in and spending more time in the bay."

Rodgers and her team are now busy trying to quantify the changes many residents say they are witnessing. They are using underwater cameras to register fish behavior, such as feeding habits and how close they will come to humans before a flight response triggers.  

Most people are predicting visitation to the islands will return gradually, and Rodgers says that will offer an ideal opportunity to measure human impact on reefs and marine ecosystems. 

"We are looking at coral growth during this time along with other factors. When visitors do return, we'll continue reef and fish observations and see how the data changes," she said. "As tourism and visitation gradually ramps up, we can keep collecting data and see how things change as daily use increases."

Rodgers is not ready to draw any conclusions yet, but fully expects invaluable data to come from this period that will lead to recommendations to state policy makers for better aquatic resource management. 

"I'm hoping at the individual level that people will see the differences for themselves, like we are already hearing, and it will lead to behavioral changes," Rodgers said. "These things that have helped during the pandemic, decreased carbon emissions, eating out less, working from home more  if we can continue to do these things after the crisis is over, that will buy us some time as we make changes toward a greener type of economy." 

The stay-at-home orders for Hawaii came just as the annual humpback whale season was entering its closing six weeks. Now, researchers are anxious to pull their equipment, including devices that listen to whale songs and record other ocean sounds, from the water to collect data on how the absence of humans and popular whale-watching tours changed the health and behavior of the whales. 

"Marine mammals are of high interest to people and there are whole industries built around it," said Marc Lammers, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration research coordinator for Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary. "Whales and dolphins are often heavily exposed to human activity and human attention, whether it be from people watching from a boat or in some cases interacting with them in the water. But the humpback whales come here to breed, not to spend time with people. Dolphins, specifically the spinner dolphins, come to shore and seek bays and coves primarily to rest and find protection as they recover from foraging activity they do primarily at night, but that's where they are most likely to run into humans."

While the shutdown has provided a special opportunity to collect data on whale songs and movements while water traffic is at an all-time low, the health restrictions in place mean some field observation work at the end of the whale season was canceled and trips out on the water to collect equipment have been postponed. For now Lammers only has "word of mouth" stories to relay, and while he suspects the shutdown benefited the humpback whales this past season, he will not know how or to what degree until scientific observations can be conducted and the data analyzed.

"For mothers nursing calves, if they have to constantly move or avoid certain areas, that can have some consequences in terms of their energy levels and capacity to care for their offspring as best they can," he said. "Because of humans they may sometimes move into areas that are not optimal for them, or expose themselves to higher risk from predators like sharks."

NOAA is in the process of developing new regulations for spinner dolphins, and the tourism shutdown and general decline in water traffic may help scientists and policy makers determine what measures will be the most effective while also avoiding unnecessary changes with minimal efficacy. 

'"It's an experiment that we could never have dreamed up ourselves -- it would have been impossible to create these conditions otherwise," said Lammers, who is also consulting with a University of Hawaii researcher studying dolphins on Hawaii Island. "But that has offered an opportunity to truly see how these dolphins are responding to the absence of people in certain areas, and that will inform the decision-making process for what rules work best."

Lammers will also be corresponding with colleagues in Alaska, Hawaii humpbacks' summer feeding grounds, in addition to whale researchers around the world, to share data and get a fuller picture of how the whale population responded to the unprecedented slowdown.

"This has been a very challenging situation for us as a society, and in many cases people have been personally devastated. That said, there are also opportunities here," Lammers said. "Many people are talking about the ways we can use this moment to change individually and collectively. I will say from a biological and scientific standpoint, this is a unique opportunity to learn how to do things better. Hopefully it's not something we'll squander, and we'll draw the right lessons from it when we get back to a more normal way of life."

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