The Blue Ecosystem : During and After Covid – 19

Shivangi Banerjee*

The mass movement of ships and commercial fishing over the years has marred the marine ecosystems to a great extent. However, due to COVID-19, the entire world has come to a standstill. This has had both positive and negative impacts on our blue waters.

Positive Impacts

The COVID-19 lockdown has given the “much-needed breathing space” to our oceans to recover from pollution, overfishing and, other damages.[1] Energy demands have significantly reduced resulting in declining marine pollution. Due to a reduction in shipping traffic, levels of greenhouse emissions have also fallen substantially which will slow down the pace of water pollution. Furthermore, a sizeable reduction in coastal construction, fossil fuel consumption, and, even noise pollution has profited the marine flora, fauna and, coral reefs. The Royal Observatory of Brussels found out that inland anthropogenic noise has declined by about 33% during this crisis.[2] Therefore minor seismic noises that were inaudible earlier could now be recorded.

Marine wildlife has also flourished during the lockdown since aquatic animals have been appearing in places where they were never seen earlier. For example, dolphins were seen in beach waters of Santa Marta and Cartagena in the Columbian Caribbean, and sea roguls and sharks were spotted in the Calanques National Park on the French coasts[3] Thus, marine waters have become more habitable for various species due to declining pollution levels and reduced stirring of sediments as commercial activities have reduced.[4]

Even India’s coastal waters have benefitted from the lockdown. Not only have the quality of rivers improved due to a decline in industrial runoffs,[5] but the coastal ecosystem of the Gulf of Mannar along the Thoothukudi district has also revived. The health of River Ganga has also improved. A research conducted by the Suganthi Devadason Marine Research Institute suggested that there has been an average deduction in macro-plastic and meso-plastic levels in the waters,[6] water pollution levels have dropped and marine animals are moving about on their own accord. The wildlife department is also considering releasing more Ghariyals into the Beas River.[7]

Negative Impacts

The benefits of the pandemic are just a transitory phase because once it’s over and rampant economic activities resume, the ocean life will again be endangered. The emergence of the fossil fuel sector is one of the major concerns not only for the oceans but also for the Climate Change Agenda. Furthermore, continued low oil prices would discourage the Shipping Industries to commit to lower carbon footprints[8] resulting in low Governments’ response to renewable energy and energy efficiency in ship operation and designs.[9] Illicit fishing might increase due to less stringent law enforcement in the waters during the lockdown.[10]

Recycling collection units have also suffered. In the UK 46% of waste management services have declined to result in higher disposal of waste even in the water bodies.[11]There has been less demand for fresh products and naval activity. Although beneficial for ocean health, it can attract illicit maritime activities, smuggling, and piracy. However, the most widespread problem is discarding masks, latex gloves, and other surgical kits into the water bodies. There have been more masks than jellyfish in the Mediterranean.[12] Besides being medically dangerous for humans, it can also infect the water bodies. According to a survey,[13] these masks are likely to grow over 50% per year in the next seven years. So if the plastic litter is not being dealt with properly, it will cause massive gyres in the ocean which will be detrimental to the ecosystem.

India is also struggling with the same problem. Thousands of face masks and gloves in India are dumped in water bodies. In March 2020, the Central Pollution Control Board of India issued guidelines to dispose of such waste which were to be read with the Bio-Medical Waste Management Rules, 2016. But since there is no legal requirement to discard these masks in a special manner, normal waste management rules will apply. Hence, these masks will soon pave their way into the landfills and eventually into the seas.[14]

Need for Ensuring Sustainability Post Covid-19

The issue of such litters is a major cause of concern,especially for the blue ecologists. However, many have triggered an alarm towards this issue. For instance, #TheGloveChallenge on Instagram by Maria Algarra,[15] Operation Clean Sea by a French NGO, etc. The Spanish and French governments have also levied hefty fines on people for polluting waters with the Covid-19 litter.  For the first time, water bodies have also been included in the Sustainable Development Goals 14, which deals with underwater life.[16] Even Kenya’s Development Plan Vision 2030 and the Blue Economy Initiative acknowledge the need for resilient oceans.[17]

However, there is a need for the sustainable recovery of oceans post-COVID-19. Governments must strive to secure the oceans. To begin with, eco-friendly masks should be encouraged. Investment plans should include low impact fisheries and restoration of Marine Diversity. It is a“once-in-a-generation opportunity and responsibility” to mend our ways with nature.[18] The remedial measures should include efficient COVID-19 discard collection programs and regulate the disposal mechanisms. The governments must also invest in green practices in all sectors of the blue economy for a resilient marine ecosystem even post-pandemic.

The developing countries must adhere to the UNDP’s ocean governance program which focuses on integrated and sustainable development of the ocean ecosystem.[19] Timely and accurate collection of data, which was disrupted during this pandemic, must also be taken care of[20] The marine transport sector should also be regulated by digitizing trade procedures ultimately reducing CO2 emissions in the long run.[21]. Ocean scientists must be encouraged to carry out research and rectify unsustainable activities[22]. Ecotourism should also be encouraged. We must also preserve marine genetic material. In fact, the test used to diagnose COVID-19 (along with AIDS and SARS) was developed using an enzyme from a microbe which was found in marine hydrothermal vents and freshwater hot springs.[23] Therefore, the international community should not consider any activity that leads to the eradication of genetic material that may benefit the future pharmaceutical industries.

This year was supposed to be a very significant year for the progress of the oceans with the COP26 scheduled to take place but now many implementations and regulations have been postponed to future years. Efforts are being made and the many conferences have taken place online, like ‘Virtual Ocean Dialogues’ to discuss the fate of our oceans. The pandemic has been beneficial for our blue waters, but if we neglect it post-pandemic, the damage will be beyond control.

About the Author

*Shivangi Banerjee is a second year law student at National Law University Odisha, Cuttack.


[1]United Nations Environment Program, Covid-19 Could Help Turn the Tide on Ocean Health in Asia-Pacific, United Nations(May 13, 2020), https://news.un.org/en/story/2020/05/1063832.

[2]Florina Jacob, Nature in times of Covid-19: Noise Pollution and Coral Reefs, Coral Guardian Newsletter (April 30,2020), https://www.coralguardian.org/en/nature-in-times-of-covid-19-noise-pollution-coral-reefs/.

[3] ibid.

[4] Steve J. Bickley, Alison Macintyre, and Benno Torgler, Sink or Swim: the Covid-19 impact on environmental Health Fish Levels and Illicit Maritime Activities, Social Sciences Nature (April 22, 2020), https://socialsciences.nature.com/posts/66594-sink-or-swim-the-covid-19-impact-on-environmental-health-fish-levels-and-illicit-maritime-activity.

[5]Associated Press, Cleaner Rivers, Less Pollution: India’s Covid-19 lockdown has some Positive Effects, Hindustan Times (April 22, 2020), https://www.hindustantimes.com/india-news/cleaner-rivers-less-pollution-india-s-covid-19-lockdown-has-some-positive-effects/story-Gq4IoC6nuyOe7kInyQeHnM.html.

[6]P.A. Narayani, Lockdown Improved Coastal Ecosystem of Gulf of Mannar, The Hindu (June 4, 2020), https://www.thehindu.com/news/national/tamil-nadu/lockdown-improved-coastal-ecosystems-of-gulf-of-mannar-says-study/article31746814.ece.

[7]Aman Sood, Wildlife Department to study Lockdown Impact on Ecology, The Tribune(April 6, 2020), https://www.tribuneindia.com/news/punjab/wildlife-dept-to-study-lockdown-impact-on-ecology-66053.

[8]Andrew Hudson, The Ocean, and Covid-19, United Nations Development Program (June 8, 2020), https://www.undp.org/content/undp/en/home/blog/2020/the-ocean-and-covid-19.html.

[9]ibid.

[10]Whitley Saumweber, Amy. K Lehr, Ty Loft, and Sabrina Kim, Covid-19 at sea: Impacts on the Blue Economy, Ocean Health, and Ocean Security, Center For Strategic And International Studies (April 10, 2020), https://www.csis.org/analysis/covid-19-sea-impacts-blue-economy-ocean-health-and-ocean-security.

[11]Emma Lupton, The ESG Implications of Covid-19: Focus on Ocean Health, Bmo Asset Management(June 2020), https://www.bmogam.com/viewpoints/responsible-investment/macro-views/the-esg-implications-of-covid19-focus-on-ocean-health/.

[12]Ashifa Kassam, More Masks than Jellyfish: Coronavirus waste ends up in Ocean, The Guardian(June 8, 2020), https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2020/jun/08/more-masks-than-jellyfish-coronavirus-waste-ends-up-in-ocean.

[13]Vijay Sakhuja, Covid-19: Challenges of Human Health and Environmental Costs, Geography And You(June 18, 2020), https://www.geographyandyou.com/covid-19-challenges-of-human-health-and-environmental-costs/.

[14]Ipshita Chaturvedi, Covid-19, and India: The Challenge of Marine Debris, National Maritime Foundation(May 29, 2020), https://maritimeindia.org/covid-19-and-india-the-challenge-of-marine-debris/.

[15]Ashifa Kassam, More Masks than Jellyfish: Coronavirus waste ends up in Ocean, The Guardian (June 8, 2020), https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2020/jun/08/more-masks-than-jellyfish-coronavirus-waste-ends-up-in-ocean.

[16]Doug Radar, Hope for the Oceans in a time of Covid-19, Environmental Defence Fund(April 14, 2020), http://blogs.edf.org/edfish/2020/04/14/hope-for-the-oceans-in-a-time-of-covid-19/.

[17]Lazarus OmbaiAmayo, Innovation for a Sustainable Ocean amid the Covid-19 Pandemic: Impacts on Kenya’s Marine and Coastal Environment, Un Chronicle (June 8, 2020), https://www.un.org/en/un-chronicle/innovation-sustainable-ocean-amid-covid-19-pandemic-impacts-kenya%E2%80%99s-marine-and-coastal.

[18]Ashifa Kassam, More Masks than Jellyfish: Coronavirus waste ends up in Ocean, The Guardian(June 8, 2020), https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2020/jun/08/more-masks-than-jellyfish-coronavirus-waste-ends-up-in-ocean.

[19] Andrew Hudson, The Ocean, and Covid-19, United Nations Development Program (June 8, 2020), https://www.undp.org/content/undp/en/home/blog/2020/the-ocean-and-covid-19.html.

[20]Whitley Saumweber, Amy. K Lehr, Ty Loft, and Sabrina Kim, Covid-19 at sea: Impacts on the Blue Economy, Ocean Health, and Ocean Security, Center For Strategic And International Studies(April 10, 2020), https://www.csis.org/analysis/covid-19-sea-impacts-blue-economy-ocean-health-and-ocean-security.

[21] United Nations Conference on Trade and Development, Covid-19 offers an opportunity to save our ocean, Unctad Newsletter(June 8, 2020), https://unctad.org/en/pages/newsdetails.aspx?OriginalVersionID=2387.

[22]Lazarus OmbaiAmayo, Innovation for a Sustainable Ocean amid the Covid-19 Pandemic: Impacts on Kenya’s Marine and Coastal Environment, Un Chronicle (June 8, 2020), https://www.un.org/en/un-chronicle/innovation-sustainable-ocean-amid-covid-19-pandemic-impacts-kenya%E2%80%99s-marine-and-coastal 

[23]Elise Hugus, Finding Answers in the Ocean, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution(March 19, 2020), https://www.whoi.edu/news-insights/content/finding-answers-in-the-ocean/.

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