COVID-19 disruption reveals mass-tourism pressure on nearshore sea turtle distributions and access to optimal breeding habitat

Authors: Gail Schofield, Liam C. D. Dickson, Lucy Westover, Antoine M. Dujon & Kostas A. Katselidis

Source: Evolutionary Applications (MAY 2021)

Brief summary of the paper:

Quantifying the extent to which animals detect and respond to human presence allows us to identify pressure (disturbance) and inform conservation management objectively; however, obtaining baselines against which to compare human impact is hindered in areas where human activities are already well established.

For example, Zakynthos Island (Greece, Mediterranean) receives around 850,000 visitors each summer, while supporting an important loggerhead sea turtle rookery (~300 individuals/season).

The coronavirus (COVID-19)-driven absence of tourism in May–June 2020 provided an opportunity to evaluate the distribution dynamics of this population in the absence (2020) vs. presence (2018 and 2019) of visitors using programmed unmanned aerial system (UAS) surveys.

Ambient sea temperature transitioned from suboptimal for breeding in May to optimal in late June, with turtle distribution appearing to shift from shallow (to benefit from waters 3–5°C above ambient) to deeper waters in 2018 and 2019, but not 2020. The 2020 data set demonstrated that increased tourism pressure, not temperature, drives turtles offshore.

Specifically, >50% of turtles remained within 100 m of shore at densities of 25–50 visitors/km, even when sea temperature rose, with 2018 and 2019 data supporting this trend. Reduced access to warmer, nearshore waters by tourism could delay the onset of nesting and increase the length of the egg maturation period between nesting events (internesting interval) at this site. A coastal refuge zone could be delimited in May–June where touristic infrastructure is minimal, but also where turtles frequently aggregate.

In conclusion, sea turtles appear capable of perceiving changes in the level of human pressure at fine spatial and temporal scales and adjusting their distribution accordingly.