This post is one of a series on projects supported by the New England Aquarium’s Marine Conservation Action Fund (MCAF). Through MCAF, the Aquarium supports researchers, conservationists, and grassroots organizations around the world as they work to address the most challenging problems facing the ocean.
MCAF Grantee Abi Henry Nibam, Vice President of Tube Awu Association, leads a non-profit along the Atlantic coastline of Ebodje Cameroon. Henry and his team work alongside local communities to pursue conservation and research efforts of the endangered and vulnerable sea turtle species that nest on the beaches. MCAF recently funded their project to strengthen marine turtle monitoring and research. In this piece, Henry talks about the effects COVID–19 has had in the field and in his conservation work as well as recommendations post pandemic research work. note: The English version of this blog has been back-dated for archival purposes.
How COVID-19 global pandemic affected marine turtle conservation research in Ebodje, Cameroon
By Abi Henry Nibam
How has the COVID19 pandemic effected marine turtle conservation research and Tube Awu Association in Cameroon?
Beaches became cleaner
Due to the COVID-19 outbreak, many local communities closed beaches to the public, impacting groups that monitor beaches as marine turtles return to nest. Travel bans caused our organization to lose volunteers, local students and tourists who financially support projects. Irresponsible use during the pandemic by people has caused many local beaches in our project site to present pollution problems. The lack of tourists, as a result of the social distancing measures due to the new coronavirus pandemic, caused a notable change in the appearance in most of the 12 neighboring beaches in the Atlantic coastline in the South Region of Cameroon. The beaches became cleaner and with clear waters.
Data collection for conservation efforts
COVID-19 crisis stalled our science efforts by interrupting field research. Our ongoing long-term research projects- for annual data gathering since 2013, faced unprecedented break, and there was widespread uncertainty about how long grants and other funding sources will be available. The pandemic gave us time to regroup, rethink, and refocus on where we can be most impactful during the project period and beyond. While the world was changing super fast, not only by the pandemic, but by numerous interacting factors. My team and I were focused on those interactions.
How were factors changing?
Let us start by breaking down one of the pieces of data that we knew we were be most affected by the pandemic: long-term datasets. With many field research activities on pause due to the COVID-19 pandemic, we were even more reliant on automated sampling. However, a lot of the ecological data that we cared about wouldn’t have been collected. In times of COVID-19 uncertainty, I resorted to re-strategizing to a Plan B, including finding existing datasets to work with more from home and downloading most oceanographic data via “cyber” field season, such as Satellite data via MODIS-Aqua SST (daytime) and MODIS-aqua chlorophyll. Meanwhile, local patrollers were rather assigned more into neritic monitoring surveys for nesting turtles. This strategic approach was very practical as well, though it robbed us entirely from the data collection experience.
The COVID-19 pandemic caused the cancellation of international meetings.
As a PhD concluding candidate in Spain, I saw my planned participation with Powerpoint presentations in several science conferences thrown into uncertainties- either cancelled or postponed, with some of the conference issues on climate change and conservation. International scientific meetings, where researchers share and discuss their latest work, also fell by the wayside, slowing the work of the scientific community as a whole.COVID-19 disrupted important major biodiversity policy and planning conferences and training opportunities (40th Annual International Sea Turtle Symposium, Beahrs Environmental Leadership Program, Africa Science Leadership Programme (ASLP); Future Africa)
There were funding concerns from the Pandemic
Funding restrictions imposed in response to the COVID-19 pandemic took a toll on scientific research worldwide and equally affected us. We were unable to secure an early continuation of funding to our field activities, and are currently stressed and in search for future funds as the MCAF funds ended. Researchers working with live organisms had to make tough decision of which ones to keep alive amid a shortage of resources. COVID-19 may have lasting consequences for the global economy, and science is not impervious to these consequences. We are presently gripped with fear that the resources allocated to fight COVID-19 may mean fewer resources are available for research on marine turtle conservation and other areas. I am concerned about the impact of COVID-19 on the economy and on funding for research by our association. We don’t know what will happen, and what priorities may change.
How did I adapt during the pandemic?
In order to be successful with my research, we generally became creative, resilient and highly adaptive. In a locked-down position, I resorted to analyzing previously collected data, writing up new manuscripts, teaching (and taking) virtual courses, and engaging in new conversations and collaborations. Also, in some ways, the global lockdown pushed me to do things that were meant to adapt with the changing times e.g. participating in webinars, facilitating online learning, and processing backlogs of information. During the lockdown, I equally took some time to read about news reports to demystify the COVID-19 virus, and making science in the spotlight like never before. Thus, the crisis also provided opportunities to learn, adapt and to innovate.
What is the Blue Economy in Cameroon?
The pandemic offered an opportunity to reiterate our ongoing desire to build a sustainable ocean economy fit for the future- The Blue Economy. This was through staying in the course on the decree of creation of the proposed Marine National Park; Manyangue na Elombo Campo, South Region of Cameroon. The Government of Cameroon began doubling efforts to create areas to protect endangered species. This has been in line with CBD’s goal to protect 10% of marine and coastal eco-regions by 2020. This Marine Park benefit a rich marine biodiversity and will help boost breeding fish and marine wildlife including foraging juvenile green turtle populations that will provide spillover to enhance regional fisheries/turtles bycatch, create jobs in tourism/ecotourism, and potentially sequester to more carbon. There has been a quest for more information to design an effective conservation of the species ecology, migration routes, population demographics and habitat use faced with threats.
Recommendations after the effects of COVID19
COVID-19 pandemic caused/is still causing unpredictable changes in Atlantic coastal communities in the South Region of Cameroon that will affect lives for generations to come, how we interact with society will be a new thing. My humble recommendations to decision-makers and managers are also to include the collection of baseline data and information on marine biodiversity in marine ecosystems and beach sand before any full reactivation of ecotourism and fishing activities without forgetting the economies and human dimension.