Effects of the COVID-19 Pandemic on the Ocean Environment

There is no denying that COVID-19 has affected almost everything in the world. With lockdowns, restrictions and more, the thoughts of the pandemic overwhelm the population. For the general public, the pandemic’s effect on the environment doesn’t get a second thought. However, for the scientific community, it is a big deal. With marine transport decreasing and the near decimation of the cruise ship industry it begs the question; will the ocean begin to thrive? When the World Health Organization officially called a pandemic in March 2020, the marine transport industry plummeted. There was a drop in ocean traffic density of 70.2% in the Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZ). The EEZ constitutes a portion of the ocean close to the coastline where a country has distinct rights and encompasses the majority of traffic from the sea (March et al., 2021).

The initial lockdown’s effects can be seen throughout many different areas of transportation, although recreational/passenger vessels certainly took the brunt with a 93.7% activity drop (March et al., 2021). The heavy new travel restrictions have decimated the pleasure craft industry and the avoidance of large gatherings and confined spaces has pushed the cruise ship industry into oblivion. The environmental impacts of the cruise ship industry are monumental, from gas to garbage and human waste. A 2005 study says that cruise ships produce 63,000 metric tons of solid waste each year, a number that has only been increasing with popularity and the increased number of fleets (Bulkley et al., 2005).

On the other hand, cargo and tanker vessels experienced the initial drop, yet their recovery has been swift.  Oceans contain 80% of world trade, and regardless of the lockdown it was crucial to get the cargo moving again. China’s lockdown preceded the restrictions of Western countries, and by April, they had rebounded rapidly. This is likely due to their strict lockdown measures and the demand for personal protective equipment (PPE) and other supplies from higher income countries in Europe and North America.  In Asian countries, mask wearing has been the norm for quite some time to protect from pollution and other contaminants. But the new found demand in Western countries has increased the production and shipping for masks and face shields causing more ocean traffic to other countries.

Another resilient ocean industry has been fishing. The demand for fish and seafood remains static and the industry has to feed the demand. They experienced brief drops at the height of lockdown restrictions, but bounced back by May. The ocean could have benefited from a longer break, to allow for repopulation of endangered ocean creatures that are affected by the by-products of the fishing industry as well as the overconsumption of fish like the endangered Blue fin tuna. The commercial fishing industry is well resourced and well supported with subsidies in many crucial countries, decreasing the economic effects of the industry. It is likely that lower income countries and smaller scale fisheries were more vulnerable to the economic downfalls caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.

The result of less activity in the ocean means less underwater noise, pollution and human disruption to the delicate marine ecosystems.  There is currently no evidence available to show the long-term benefits or effects of the marine vessel activity of the COVID pandemic. Although it may seem like a lifetime to society, one year is simply a bat of an eye in the ocean timeline. The initial drop-in ocean activity has recovered to the rates of before the pandemic, save for the tourism industry which is expected to make its return soon. Although some countries like Australia are almost back to normal, the worldwide tourism industry will need the majority of countries to have recovered from the pandemic before the business will be booming again. So, will the short-term benefits actually help? Or will other environmental effects of the COVID pandemic outweigh any benefits from the drop in pleasure craft operations. One new thing to consider is the increased levels of waste from the influx of Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) which has already begun to cause problems in the ocean from waste toincreased shipping traffic.

On top of the demand of PPE, the usage of laboratory and medical supplies have increased as well as the need for their disposal ultimately adding to the plastic and microplastic problem (Nunez et al., 2021). Masks, face shields and other protection from the deadly virus have been proven to protect the population from COVID. They are essential to our fight against the pandemic, but what is the consequence to the environment? The forecast for total plastic production is estimated to increase to 33 billion tons by 2050 (Nunez et al., 2021). On top of that, 91% of mismanaged plastics already end up in the ocean and the increase of single use plastics has already begun to wreak havoc on the marine ecosystem (Chowdhury et al., 2021). These microplastics have started making their way into the food chain, eventually making their way up to marine mammals and humans. The increase of single use plastics with the demand for PPE due to the pandemic has already begun to cause problems with the delicate ecosystems of the ocean.

This is especially highlighted in coastal countries, particularly those with a higher mask usage and low-income countries whose waste management systems are not evolved enough to handle the materials from these masks.  It is evidently exposing the weakness in global infrastructure and the inequalities in waste management systems.  Asian countries in particular have demonstrated their weak infrastructure and lack of effective waste management with 1.51 million tons of waste from used PPE. In turn, Europe has only produced 0.48 million tons.  More specifically, it is projected that 0.15 million tons to 0.39 million tons of plastic debris could end up in global oceans within a year (Chowdhury et al., 2021).

The big question is; how will the long-term effects of less marine activity and increased waste effect the ocean ecosystems? Society has already begun to show increased care for the environment with awareness of climate change, ecosystems and the “Save the Turtles” movement. But does the pandemic’s grasp on life shift the focus away from environmental causes and into self-preservation?The COVID -19 pandemic has affected every element of daily life. From lockdowns, increased safety measures and other restrictions it dominates lives. So there is no question that there will be some effects on the environments. Will the increased plastic in oceans from PPE outweigh the dipin ocean traffic? Will the cruise ship industry’s dip have a real effect on pollution in the ocean? Only time will tell.


  1. Bulkley, J. W., Commoy, J., & Nadel, R. (2005). Pollution Prevention in the Cruise Ship Industry. The Environmental Impact of Cruise Ships. http://css.umich.edu/project/pollution-prevention-cruise-ship-industry
  2. Chowdhury, H., Chowdhury, T., & Sait, S. M. (2021). Estimating marine plastic pollution from COVID-19 face masks in coastal regions. Marine pollution bulletin168, 112419.
  3. March, D., Metcalfe, K., Tintore, J., & Godley, B. J. (2021) Tracking the Global Reduction of Marine Traffic during the COVID-19 Pandemic. Nature Communications 12, 2415.
  4. Nunez, A. A., Astorga, D., Caceres-Farias, L., Bastidas, L.,Villegas, C. S., Macay, K., & Christensen J. H. (2021) Microplastic Pollution in Seawater and Marine Organisms across the Tropical Eastern Pacific and Galapagos. Scientific Reports 11, 6424.