Are Society And Marine Ecosystems Changing Under the Corona Pandemic?

Small-scale fishing boats at the coasts of Peru © Frederike Tirre

The Humboldt Current System with its upwelling area on the Pacific coast of South America is a highly productive ecosystem and a hotspot of marine biodiversity. An average of around nine million tons of fish and other seafood are caught here every year. The ecosystem is highly complex. In the Pacific Ocean, off almost the entire American coast, the trade winds transport cold, nutrient-rich water from the depths to the surface. However, if the Pacific Ocean off the coast of Peru warms up, due to the weakening of the winds, this also affects other regions. This process results in droughts or extreme rainfall, depending on the location, and is known as the El Niño phenomenon, with its global effects. In order to really understand this ecosystem, the human influence through fishing and the consequences of climate change cannot be ignored. But what can be done if anthropogenic drivers change in the middle of the ongoing research?

Scientists of the project ‘Humboldt-Tipping’ investigate the complexity of this system and its biological tipping points along the Peruvian coast. The effects of the coronavirus pandemic now allow researchers to take a completely new view of human influence on the ecosystem.

One aim of this research is to improve the understanding of feedback between ecological, social and economic dynamics with contributions from a wide range of stakeholders. The transdisciplinary project combines research approaches with local expert knowledge and the targeted involvement of stakeholders so that research results can be applied directly. However, the corona pandemic is now influencing these feedbacks at all levels to an unkown extent.

The Humboldt Current has a length of over 6,500 kilometres and reaches a width of up to 900 kilometres. The cold, low-salt, near-surface current originates in Antarctica, from where it flows past the west coast of South America. The upwelling of nutrient-rich cold deep water along the coasts of South America makes it a highly productive ecosystem.

The ‘Humboldt-Tipping’ project focuses on two systems: on the one hand on the pelagic system of the open ocean with the Peruvian industrial anchovy fishery, which depends on the nutrient-rich deep water and whose yield is mainly used for the production of fish oil and fish meal. On the other hand, coastal (Independence Bay and Sechura Bay) and island systems (Galapagos), where artisanal fishing, aquaculture and ecotourism are the main maritime activities to secure the livelihood of the local population.

Workshops were held in Lima (Peru), and the regions of Ica and Piura in November and December 2019. Scientists and stakeholders developed scenarios of how the system might change in the light of changing environmental and socio-economic factors such as pollution, coastal use and population, social organisation and environmental variability.

At that time, nobody could have guessed that a worldwide outbreak of the corona virus SARS-CoV-2 / COVID-19 was imminent. However, it are precisely these scenarios receiving a completely new weighting in times of a pandemic. Due to their key role in food supply, artisanal fishing with its more than 3,000 vessels, the processing industry and other related activities were excluded from the ordered shutdown in the country. This is because the livelihoods of around 200,000 people directly depend on fishing in Peru. Nevertheless, due to the health crisis, this sector is now in a state of unprecedented upheaval. Border closures, a lack of demand for products, but also difficulties in assembling crews have triggered the biggest fishing crisis not only in Peru but worldwide.

In April, when infections were first detected in various people, who were also involved in fishing and its further processing, led to the closure of landing sites. But fishing as such has never been questioned to proceed, because of its key role in the food supply. With rising infectionand mortality rates, now the fishermen themselves are the ones pushing for the suspension of the fishing season, a hitherto unprecedented event in the middle of the high season. What effect the reduced fishing activity will have on social changes and the economy, and what this may mean for the ecosystem off the coast, is total speculation. Detailed investigations will follow, when the researchers are allowed to re-enter the country and take biological samples on their research cruises. The scientists had several possible biological tipping points in mind when they started the project, but COVID-19 wasn’t one of them.

More information on the project and more detailed information on the effects of the coronavirus pandemic can be found at