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How Has the Pandemic Changed Science?

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Many Species May Disappear Before We Can Learn About Them

As a marine scientist, I have been working to investigate guitarfishes and wedgefishes, which are among the little-understood species threatened with extinction.

These fish are fascinating. They are beautiful and gentle. They look like sharks, but they are actually rays. I consider them charismatic megafauna—large species that capture the imagination—but they haven’t gained the wide attention that whales or dolphins have. We should know more about them, and we don’t. They are disappearing quickly, and we have little time to act. That is why I have chosen to study them.

For 2020, I had big plans. I am a Canadian, but based in Dubai on the Arabian/Persian Gulf. I was planning to do field work in the United Arab Emirates and travel to India, Sri Lanka, and several countries across West Africa to work with government agencies, train field researchers, and talk with fishers. Fishers can be our allies in species conservation, if for no other reason than to protect their own livelihood. My team and I were building such a good relationship with many of them that they were contacting us about rare species they were catching.

But then COVID-19 happened.

The coronavirus pandemic shut down almost everything. I have mostly been unable to travel, unable to do training sessions for my research teams, unable even to go to the docks.  As a result, we are going to see gaps in the data that we were collecting. We’ve lost so much time on so many things. Some of it can be regained; some of it cannot.

In 2019, we made major progress. The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora regulated the trade of an additional 18 species of sharks and rays whose populations are quickly declining. Included were 10 species of wedgefish and six species of giant guitarfish.

We were helping governments implement these new controls. But now, amid the pandemic, we don’t know what’s happening. We don’t have eyes on the ground. Fishers are still going out fishing, but there is no one there to enforce protections and monitor the trade. We don’t know what is actually happening. In terms of the impact on species that are already threatened or are disappearing, we have lost all control in the countries I work in.

Fishers are still going out fishing, but there is no one there to enforce protections and monitor the trade.

The fins of guitarfish and wedgefish are extremely valuable and are used in shark fin soup. We have anecdotal information that traders are coming in and paying fishers to target these species, and they are stockpiling the fins so that, as soon as the markets reopen, they can sell them at very high prices.

Mauritania, the West African nation where I was able to make my one and only trip since the pandemic in March, has a marine protected area. We’re pretty sure that fishers in this area are targeting these species, despite a ban on fishing. Obviously, if this continues much longer, we will have lost critical time in preserving species.

Starting up again will take time. There are regulators, customs officials, and researchers who have had to leave their positions. So we’ll need to do hiring and new training. In a way, if this continues for much longer, we’ll be going back to zero.

In addition to affecting how science is practiced, the pandemic is hitting scientists themselves very hard. Stuck at home, unable to be in their labs or do field research, many scientists are finding it difficult to complete their projects in the time allotted by funding agreements. Funders typically award grants for a set period of time. When that time ends, so does the funding.

Some of my colleagues are concerned they won’t have income. If they lose their salary, they cannot continue being scientists. They are going to have to do something else. They may have to shift careers, especially if they are early-career scientists.

A lot of the Ph.D. students who were hoping to get funding and start projects haven’t been able to do that. But they still have to pay their bills. So they may need to find somewhere else to work. We could lose part of a generation of scientists.

In some developing countries, governments themselves depend on the funding that we bring in as external researchers. And without our work—without up-to-date data on what is actually happening to species in their territory—they may lack political ammunition to impose hard but necessary restrictions.

Am I discouraged? I’m trying not to be. A lot of people are very depressed about what is happening. But we are going to be able to get back out there and collect information. We are going to be able to continue with conservation. It’s important to think like that and have that hope. 

Rima Jabado is founder and lead scientist at the Elasmo Project and a Pew marine fellow.

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