COVID & environment: local scientists and changemakers give their input [fr]

On the occasion of Earth Day, the French Consulate in Miami e-met with local researchers, representative of NGO and changemakers. We wanted to highlight how our relation with our environment is deeply linked with the novel coronavirus pandemic.

To have a better understanding on the underlying causes and the importance of how we interact with our environment, Pr. Todd Crowl, Director of the Institute of Environment at Florida International University, gives us his insights.

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“The earth has been under assault from humans for the last couple thousand years. We have significantly altered almost every cycle there is (e.g., water, phosphorus, etc). We often talk about ecosystems reaching ’tipping points’ where the system begins to function differently due to all of the changes and pressures. This virus is what we might call a density-dependent response. The human population has reached a level that a simple virus can move through the masses with ease.

The deaths and suffering are a terrible result of all of these intersecting dynamics. On a positive side, the reduced travel and overall decreased activities of humans globally has resulted in a significant decrease in our Carbon footprint. We are measuring renewed activities and positive responses of our coastal fishes, crabs, and marine mammals due to the almost complete elimination of boats.

Our ecosystems are taking these last few months to heal.... To recover from the constant onslaught of human activities. On this earth day, i think the earth is taking a deep and much needed breath.”

JPEGThis deep and much needed breath is something that local NGO observes directly, such as Miami Waterkeeper.
Miami Waterkeeper (MWK) is a local non-profit with a mission is to defend, protect, and preserve South Florida’s watershed through citizen engagement and community action rooted in sound science and research. They work to ensure swimmable, drinkable, fishable water for all. They are also hosting on Earth Day a webinar at 6:00pm, we highly invite you to participate!

We interviewed Dr. Rachel Silverstein, Executive Director of Miami Waterkeeper. She is part investigator, scientist, educator, and legal advocate, functioning as a public spokesperson for our Bay, protecting floridian’s rights to clean water and empowering you to defend your waterways too! Rachel Silverstein holds a Ph.D. in marine biology from the University of Miami and has been the Miami Waterkeeper since 2014.

Interview of Dr. Rachel Silverstein, Executive Director of Miami Waterkeeper

– How the coronavirus pandemic has impacted the marine life here in Miami? Any examples of impressive changes within the past two weeks?

While this is a difficult time for everyone, people have been reporting some pretty amazing wildlife sightings, which has been a silver lining in an otherwise dark time. During this time of low boat traffic and empty beaches, the water has appeared to be clearer and quieter. It’s also been a time of little rain, which means we haven’t had so much polluted runoff from land into the water, like from stormwater and fertilizers. Rare and protected marine life, like the shy smalltooth sawfish, have been recently seen amidst the silence of the closures we are seeing at marinas and beaches. Turtle nesting seems to be up. Manatee boat strikes are down. While people are home, they are also slowing down and connecting to nature around them that they might not normally notice. This includes spotting pollution issues, large debris, or rare wildlife, all of which can be reported to us through our See a Fish, Send a Fish campaign. You can participate in helping to keep our water clean by reporting wildlife to us at hello@miamiwaterkeeper.org or tagging us in your posts on social media and using the hashtag #seeafishsendafish and #miamimarinelife.

– With social distancing and stay-at-home order, how does your organisation keeps working ? Are you developing right now new projects?

At Miami Waterkeeper, we are busier than ever! Although we are working from home, we never stop educating the public on clean water actions, our research, and our advocacy work. We are still responding to pollution reports, like an oil sheen spotted just yesterday. We are also launching new campaigns to protect water, habitat, and people. We are developing new resources to help people keep the water clean while at home and to stay engaged, like quizzes and curricula. With our new tools, people can now take a closer look at their clean water friendly practices, like what they flush down drains, how they wash their car, what items they use to clean their house and if they are environmentally friendly, and single use plastics. This is all a step in the right direction during this time of COVID-19 to make permanent behavior change for towards becoming more environmentally aware.

– Does these change gives you any hope for the future and for Florida’s marine life?

The changes we are seeing really do give us hope. Being able to observe the effect of the shut down on our air and water worldwide is an experiment that could otherwise never have been conducted. It gives us a glimpse into nature’s abilty to rebound and our effect on the world around us. These ecosystems and natural resources in Southern Florida are showing signs of resilience if the pressure on them is lifted. If people can become more connected to the nature around them and their own individual ability to make change, this small silver lining can bring positive change into the future.
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JPEGThose positive changes has also been observed among the scientific community here in Miami.

Dr. Valentina Caccia is a passionate Marine Scientist, Ocean Explorer, and Educator specializing in Climate Change and Marine Pollution. She has participated in many worldwide oceanographic cruises, doing scientific research focused on Climate Change. These excursions have motivated her to communicate her experiences through educational programs that make people aware of this global problem. You can follow her activity on LinkedIn, ResearchGate and follow her initiative Global Climate Change Challenge.

Interview of Dr. Valentina Caccia, Marine scientist at Nova Southeastern University

How do you feel the current coronavirus outbreak is affecting our local / global environment?

Our environment globally and locally has greatly benefited from the cessation of human activities that have caused many negative impacts to our Planet. Many animals have finally recovered their habitats, and this benefit greatly to the entire ecosystem. Pollution has decreased in the air, water, oceans and even on the beaches because they are finally without garbage. The beaches in Miami almost look in a pristine state. Pelicans and seagulls are happier and tranquil. More of these seabirds have been observed at this time.

This pandemic has been more effective than the Paris Agreement. Since it has been implemented immediately. Energy consumption has decreased because many buildings and business are closed. CO2 emissions from transportation have also been greatly reduced. It is the best mitigation strategy for climate change. What is needed it’s that the pandemic will last long enough for humanity to understand that we are all connected, and that we all must change to a sustainable lifestyle for the carbon emissions to decrease in the long term. It is a warning from the universe to humanity. If we do not learn the lesson, we will suffer the serious consequences of climate change and perhaps something else that we have not yet imagined.

Will the coronavirus outbreak modify your research or your approach to your current research?

Yes. At this special time, when the planet is paralyzed, new studies have emerged to take relevant data that indicates environmental changes and reference conditions that have not previously occurred and observed.

I am taking advantage of this great moment to develop new research studies that help us understand the management measures that must be taken to have a cleaner environment and in natural balance.

How do you think people could take action?

Firstly, people must realize that the lifestyle that the capitalist system has imposed on us is not sustainable at all and is leading to the destruction of all ecosystems (marine and terrestrial) and a total imbalance of the Planet. This affects us directly, because everything is interconnected in nature and we are also part of this nature.

People must demand global change with a new economic model that considers the importance of environmental conservation and with effective management measures that protect it from this ruthless degradation that is currently taking place.

Instead of demanding a return to normality, we should all demand this global change. Where the new system or economical model considers the mental health of humanity, human values, happiness and joy we have when we can spend more time with our loved ones, the ecological and community consciousness that is rapidly disappearing. We all must be together to change in benefit of our Planet.

JPEGJoel Trexler, Professor and Program Director of Marine Sciences at Florida International University rejoins the common observations on the wildlife expanding their usual ranges, and tells us how this pandemic should raise environmental awareness.

Joel Trexler’s training and ongoing interests are broadly in the fields of population and community ecology, including evolutionary ecology. His most recent work focusses on understanding spatial population and community dynamics in fluctuating environments, primarily the Everglades.

If you’re interested in Pr. Trexler’s researchs, you can find all information on his laboratorie’s website.

Interview of Pr. Joel Trexler, Professor and Program Director of Marine Sciences at FIU

How do you feel the current coronavirus outbreak is affecting our local / global environment?

The current virus outbreak has had a surprising mixture of impacts on the environment, and not all are bad. But all are derived from the way it affects the interactions of humans with nature. By creating a global economic recession, governments may use economic deprivation to justify relaxation of environmental regulations in order to generate income and spur economic growth. Impoverished people may feel compelled to overharvest or despoil natural resources to support their families, and enforcement of restrictions on extractive uses may lapse. On the other hand, there have been numerous reported observations of wildlife expanding their usual ranges into areas typically used heavily by humans, while people are quarantined at home. I have heard anecdotes of giant manta rays in urban waters where they are seldom seen and high rates for sea turtle nesting on beaches evacuated of human activity. Air quality and water quality have improved noticeably in places. Of course, these changes are likely to be short-lived. This event shines a bright light on markets that harvest, sell, and consume wild animals, which may lead to better regulation of wildlife overall. There is concern that this global emergency could encourage a ban on all such harvest that could drive indigenous uses underground and away from managed conditions into unregulated use and poaching of protected habitats.

Will the coronavirus outbreak modify your research or your approach to your current research?

The primary impact of the coronavirus on my own research has been to stop work during a critical period in the annual cycles of rainfall and their impacts on animal populations in the Everglades. We have failed to characterize aquatic animal populations in the Everglades in April, the peak of the dry season, for the first time since 1989-1990. At two sites in the central slough of the Everglades National Park, this is only the second gap in data gathering in 43 years. Gaps in the data undermine our ability to analyze and interpret the data. My hope is that we will return to regular work before our next sampling event in July.

How do you think people could take action?

Knowledge of our critical dependence on the planet’s natural resources can inspire people to better align their activities toward sustainable uses of our natural resources. This was the goal of the original Earth Day and the current predicament should be galvanizing us to further action on its 50thanniversary. This pandemic is a predictable outcome of human mis-use and abuse of our environment, as it came from the misuse of wild animal populations. The pandemic provides a graphic illustration of the connectedness of human populations around the globe and illustrates how poor environmental management has the potential to affect humanity on a global scale. Abuse and misuse of wildlife is only one way humans’ misuse of natural resources can have far-reaching impacts. The ever-growing human population, coupled with unwise use and unrestricted depletion of natural resources, is leading to negative changes in our climate that make our future global environmental conditions uncertain. Current trends predict dire consequences for us if we fail to respond to nature’s dramatic signals, such as this pandemic. Enlightened wildlife management practices designed to support indigenous peoples’ use of natural resources in a sustainable fashion would be one possible action that could result from this event. Ideally, environmental awareness more generally will be raised by the pandemic.

JPEGTo conclude these interviews, we met with a local scientist who decided to push the scientific knowledge through the public and political spheres.

Luiz Rodrigues, a Biological Oceanographer and Tropical Rainforest Ecologist, native of Niterói, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, relocated to the US in 1979 and has been working with sustainability and environmental issues since early 1980s. In 2001, after relocating to Miami Beach from California, Luiz was elected as the new Executive Director for the Environmental Coalition of Miami & the Beaches and pushing the first sustainable public policies in the city. In 2015, after dealing with the ongoing marine debris pollution of Miami’s Biscayne Bay for over 15 years, Luiz launched the Biscayne Bay Marine Health summit : an effort to coordinate and implement two pollution prevention summits catered to South Florida scientists, students, NGOs, environmental officers and elected officials .

Interview of Luiz Rodrigues, biological oceanographer and tropical rainforest ecologist

How do you feel the current coronavirus outbreak is affecting our local / global environment?

THE HUMAN COST HAS BEEN GREAT! THE ENVIROMENTAL CONSEQUENSES AMAZING! WHAT WILL WE LEARN? As most nations have observed during the last few months, the coronavirus hit us like a tornado, causing a tremendous impact on our planet’s population, its behavior and, unintentionally, on our environment. As we were asked to practice “social distancing” strategies and forced to stay home, our cities turned into ghost towns, the number of vehicles on our streets radically disappeared, industries were forced to closed down for the time-being, borders closed, and domestic and international travel reduced to a minimum. The impact has been great. But, as we have learned from world-wide reports, the pandemic was slowly leading to major and unexpected positive environmental outcomes: the reduced global activity had led to a major decrease in carbon emissions and air particles, litter in our streets, beaches, rivers, canals, oceans, turbidity in all major bodies of water, an increase in wildlife activity … amongst many others. Many cities could now see blue skies and canals as clear as the Caribbean seas.

All of this because the virus was felt like a direct and painful “slap on our faces”. We all felt it, are still feeling it and will still feel it for quite a while, according to the WHO. And, consequently, countries began to act “immediately”. We needed to do so in order to save lives.

Thus, I ask: why aren’t we acting the same way towards the present “climate crisis?” Why aren’t’ we taking it as seriously? The impacts due to changes on our climate will come slower and we "may" not feel them as directly as we are now experiencing in regards to the coronavirus pandemic. But we all know they will be much greater; much more powerful; much more damaging. Unfortunately, the human mind tends to react, most of the time, to impacts we feel either directly on our physical bodies or in our “pockets”. And this is where we need a change: in our way of thinking! How do we make our decision makers understand the parallels between these two "life-changing situations"? How do we help them see the consequences that lie ahead of us if we do not act with the same speed and determination towards the threats of climate change as we are towards the coronavirus pandemic? This is the greatest challenge of them all. I do not have an answer … BUT WE MUST FIND ONE IMMEDIATLLY.

How do you think people could take action?

It is my hope that our planet’s population, especially the upper and middle classes, large polluting corporations and our global decision makers wake up to this reality, learn from the lessons of this pandemic, and continue implementing some of the environmentally-positive behaviors we are now practicing and implement new ones so we can achieve a significant reduction of the impacts of climate change. We MUST do so in order to prevent a much greater global catastrophe.

There are many changes one can implement. Here are few examples: business owners could support more work-from-home strategies to reduce CO2 emissions; countries could prohibit consumption of wildlife through massive educational campaigns, one of the assumed sources of the coronavirus; we could be involved in the “re-greening” of our planet – plant more trees – most recent disease-causing viruses have originated in regions where our forests have been devasted, thus leading to the disappearance of natural predators of disease vectors; work you’re your local NGOs and elected officials to support sustainable energy sources and strategies; use more mass transportation; begin migrating to a more plant-based diet; learn about the ingredients in personal care and household cleaning products one purchases and support those that are protecting the environment and our animal friends; ask your local leaders to support the Energy Innovation Act, which will set a more equitable price on carbon; and much more.

But, most importantly, we must all educate ourselves more. We can search the Internet for solutions, alternatives, actions we can take that will guide us to STEP MORE LIGHTLY ON OUR HOME PLANET.

We invite you to participate to many Earth Day events today, among them, the Webinar organised by Miami Waterkeeper, you will also find all events around Miami listed on the City of Miami’s website

Last modified on 27/04/2020

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