There’s a new normal in Hawaiʻi.
Visitors to the Islands are next to nil. Residents are staying home. And the beaches are empty.
On April 17, Hawaiʻi Gov. David Ige ordered the shutdown of all state beaches to help stop the spread of COVID-19. You can’t sit, stand, sunbathe or hang out at the beach. You can’t run or walk along the sand. The only thing you can do at the beach is walk across it to get to the ocean, which is still open for swimming, surfing, paddling and other water-related exercise.
Hanauma Bay Nature Preserve on Oʻahu, however, has been entirely closed since March 16. You can’t access the beach at all, not even to enter the water.
While this may be depressing news to those who love to lounge on our beautiful beaches, there has been an upside to the closure: The beaches—and the ocean—are getting a much-deserved break.
And that’s not just true for Hawaiʻi beaches. Elsewhere, fewer humans on beaches have had a positive impact. In Florida, for example, researchers are seeing less plastic waste, fewer people and vehicles on the beach and fewer human-caused impacts to leatherback turtle hatchlings because beaches are closed. (Nesting season is already underway; 90% of all Atlantic Ocean leatherback sea turtles nest in Florida.) The same is happening in Thailand, too, where the largest number of leatherback nests have been recorded on deserted beaches in 20 years.
This news is particularly sweet today, on Earth Day, a worldwide celebration on April 22 to show support for the environment.
The COVID-19 pandemic has taken thousands of lives and affected billions of people around the world. Most of us are living under strict stay-at-home or lockdown conditions and many of our usual interactions—pau hana at bars, hanging out at the beach, hiking with friends, date nights at a nice restaurant—have ceased.
Fewer humans out and about, though, may have a positive impact on the environment.
Take Hanauma Bay.
Researchers are able to study the impact humans have had on the bay’s diverse marine life without visitors. The park normally draws about 850,000 people annually.
“This temporary closure has provided us with the unique opportunity to determine any changes and recovery times to marine organisms or the environment,” says Kuʻulei Rodgers, assistant researcher at the Hawaiʻi Institute of Marine Biology and principal investigator at its Coral Reef Ecology Lab. “We can then track any shifts back to original conditions once the park reopens.”
She and her team are in their second year of analyzing the relationship between large crowds and environmental degradation at Hanauma Bay. With the beach closed, team members are using a stereoscopic camera to measure how close parrotfish, wrasse and other fish species are swimming toward them; that will be compared to data taken once visitors return to the park. They’re also tracking feeding behavior with and without visitors.
Anecdotally, Rodgers and her team have already seen more fish coming in closer contact with them and improved water clarity since the closure. They predict the lack of human disturbances, particularly to the coral reef, will benefit the ecosystem.
“There are so many cases of the environment improving at this time with less human pressure,” Rodgers says. “Mountains are now visible in places where pollutants once obscured the view, some canals and streams have increased visibility, and wildlife is returning to highly populated areas. This can be a wake-up call for us to be more aware of the impact we are having on the earth and strive to lessen our stress on the environment once we resume our daily activities.”
That’s something to celebrate on this Earth Day.