One of the questions that we have been asked many times since the start of the Covid lockdown in March 2020 is about the impact that the economic slow-down has had on the marine environment.
The launch of the Balearic Sea report 2021 a few weeks ago sheds some light on this question, and one key message emerges: signs of the environmental improvement on the Balearic Sea due to the COVID economic slowdown are temporary and short-lived. Restoring our marine and coastal environment to an excellent state of conservation will require a long-term effort and commitment to reduce and manage the pressures on our seas.
The Balearic Sea Report 2021 brings together the best available information about the Balearic Sea and makes it publicly accessible at www.informemarbalear.org. The report includes 150 indicators put together with the support of nearly 100 researchers and technical staff from 30 different institutions including the main research institutions of the islands and government departments.
The Balearic Sea Report 2021 captures marked changes in some indicators and trends due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Most of the reported changes are related to human pressures. While it is still too early to determine whether the reduction in some pressures has had a significant impact on any species or habitats, there is a major consensus that these are likely to be anecdotal and not significant, in particular for some long-lived organisms, such as the seagrass Posidonia oceanica, which can live 100,000 years, or for coralligenous habitats which take centuries to form.
During the seven-week lockdown that Spain endured from March to May 2020, there were lots of videos of dolphins entering into ports and marinas and swimming much closer to shore than usual. Nearly all ports and harbors of the Balearics registered the appearance of dolphins at some point. Obviously, this change in behavior does not indicate an increase on the populations of marine mammals around the islands, it just tells us that if we reduce noise pollution nature comes closer to us.
The most noticeable change linked to the COVID-19 pandemic is the 80% decrease in tourism. The numbers of tourists dropped from 16.5 million in 2019 to 3 million in 2020. Associated with this reduction, the maximum human pressure on the islands decreased by 21% from 1,609,033 people in 2020 compared to 2,036,263 people in 2019. Fewer people on the islands meant fewer people on the beaches or at sea and an increase in water quality levels, and higher chances for coastal birds nesting in places where they’d never dared to nest before.
Marine traffic also significantly decreased in 2020. There was a 42% decline in overall marine transport from 54,002 in 2019 to 31,151 in 2020. Cruise ships were the most affected, decreasing by 95%. The decline in marine traffic led to a reduction on underwater noise which is what attracted dolphins closer to shore.
For obvious reasons, the 2020 values for several indicators are an “outlier” compared to the values registered over time. We expect that for 2021, many of the human pressures will increase although probably will not reach pre-Covid levels.
As we start to get out of the covid crisis and the economy starts to recover with the reactivation of the tourism sector we must not forget that the economic prosperity of the Balearics is very closely linked to the environmental quality of its sea and its coast. How we manage these pressures in the future to ensure the conservation of our sea is the main challenge we face.