Fewer right whale strikes, healthier oceans with less human activity
Around the world, as pandemic measures limit human activity, animals are moving into the newly quieted spaces.
While Newfoundland and Labrador is largely rural, and wildlife sightings fairly common, scientists say even this province will likely see the pandemic restrictions have an effect on nature.
“Wildlife in general always seems to do better when people are not around,” said Memorial University geography professor Alistair Bath.
“Chernobyl was probably where this phenomenon was first observed very well with increases in wolves, red deer, wild boar and changes in vegetation structure.”
Bath said in Newfoundland and Labrador the biggest difference might be noticed in our oceans.
Indeed, the COVID-19 pandemic is affecting ocean traffic.
For example, Oceanex has said it will reduce its cargo shipments from Montreal and Halifax into St. John’s from three to two times a week.
Drilling on the Hibernia platform is shut down, and the Fish, Food and Allied Workers union is calling for a further delay in the start of the crab fishery.
“We’re talking about delaying the opening of some of the fisheries, and potentially some of them may not take place this year — that’s a real problem in terms of livelihoods obviously, and it raises questions regarding food supply, but from a nature perspective, certainly there are some opportunities there that it could allow nature some time to rebound,” said Memorial University ocean sciences research professor Paul Snelgrove.
Good news for whales
Bath, Snelgrove and Fisheries and Oceans Canada research scientist Jack Lawson all said these changes in ocean traffic might result in fewer vessel collisions with the endangered North Atlantic right whale.
A part of Lawson’s research involves deploying underwater acoustic recorders to listen to noise in the ocean, such as from vessels, seismic activity, and the calling sounds made by whales, as well as what effect man-made noises have on whale behaviour.
“We have difficulty detecting a lot of these whales at some distance from our recorders because man-made sounds can be so loud,” he explained.
Lawson recalled last summer on the Flemish Pass when there were multiple concurrent seismic exploration activities underway, and he described the sounds picked up by the underwater recorders.
“All you can hear, it just sounds like a war going off — just constant banging of air guns and the overlapping of signals makes it very hard for us to detect calling animals — they’re just washed out or masked by the sounds of these air guns.
“So, if the seismic is held off or not conducted this year either because of the pandemic or because of the poor price of oil, it will be an excellent chance for us to perhaps hear animals that we wouldn’t have been able to hear before.
“And more interestingly, for a lot of these animals seismic operations have been happening on the Grand Banks for decades. So, for some of these dolphins and some of the shorter-lived large whales or younger large whales, they have never had a time when they have been on the Grand Banks when there hasn’t been these very loud seismic operations going on, so it will be a new regime for them as well. And so, we might see changes in behaviour or activity with them.”
He said research on whale feces post-9-11 when there was a significant reduction in vessel traffic in the Atlantic found a reduction in stress hormones released by the whales.
“I’m sure colleagues are thinking again about collecting fecal samples and other things...There will be colleagues in the Gulf this year who are collecting that sort of thing for right whales, and they may see differences from years gone by when there was more vessel traffic.”
More moose in metro
Meanwhile on land, traffic on roadways is significantly decreased, there’s fewer planes flying overhead, and urban spaces such as St. John’s are quieter with people socially isolating.
“There’s undoubtedly going to be some effects of those sudden, abrupt changes in the human behaviours over the last month worldwide; we’re traveling less, we’re all staying put, there’s less cars on the road,” said Memorial University biology professor Yolanda Wiersma.
“I think those are going to be different in different parts of the world, and how they’re going to manifest themselves here in Newfoundland, I can only speculate....It might not be as dramatic here because in this province a lot of our settled areas are right on the boundary of natural areas, and so it’s not that unusual to see wild animals in our cities anyway.”
However, Wiersma said she can certainly see that if we’re still socially isolating in June that there might be increased moose sightings on roadways and in urban areas.
One place she said there might be a more noticeable effect is in parks, such as Terra Nova and Gros Morne, if they remain closed during the usually busy summer months.
“The parks staff who are in the parks will see more wildlife in parts of the parks where they wouldn’t normally see wildlife in the summer months just because the campers aren’t there, (and) the tourists aren’t there.”
Flattening the temperature curve
Wiersma said she is interested to see if we as a society learn any lessons as a result of this pandemic.
She said just like we had to make radical changes to flatten the COVID-19 curve, in order to combat climate change we need to flatten the temperature curve.
“It’s been kind of interesting to see how quickly people were willing to radically change their behaviour and their lifestyle for a greater good, and it’s kind of the same conversation we should be having about climate change,” she said.
“And with climate change we don’t have to do it in a matter of days or weeks - we have a few years yet - but some of the lifestyle changes, like maybe thinking about flying less, or maybe thinking about driving less, are not that dissimilar to what we’re doing now.”
She said we can use this experience as a lesson on how we can change our behaviour to have less impact on greenhouse gas emissions, but do it in such a way that we still have a healthy economy.