How will COVID-19 and climate change affect the whale-watching industry?

Griffith University research predicts it will take years for the whale-watching industry to recover from the COVID-19 pandemic.

The world-first study, published in Science of the Total Environment, found that while COVID-19 has had a drastic impact on the whale-watching industry, climate change poses a longer-term problem.

“The short-term system shock from COVID-19, that led to an immediate disruption to the whale-watching industry, is likely to have significant and long-lasting impact,” said co-author Dr Olaf Meynecke from the Griffith Climate Change Response Program.

Dr Olaf Meynecke, a key whale researcher at the Griffith Centre for Coastal Management and manager of the project.

“Climate change, on the other hand, doesn’t have the same noticeable short-term impact, it comes as a slow change over time.”

The study assessed the Gold Coast whale-watching industry and the humpback whale population on the east coast of Australia as a case study to model the possible impacts of changing migration patterns and shifts of whale season likely caused by climate change and the consequences of COVID-19 restrictions.

The researchers used a ‘whole-of-system’ modelling approach which incorporated both environmental factors such as the whale numbers and climate, and socio-economic factors like number of tourists, length of the season and COVID-19 disruption.

“This holistic approach, which develops a detailed understanding of whale population and economic changes over time, allows for a better understanding of how the whale-watching industry changes under different stressors,” said lead author Dr Russell Richards, from the Griffith Centre for Coastal Management.

“Our novel modelling approach suggests we are unlikely to see business as usual for the Gold Coast whale-watching industry for some time yet and predicts it will take years for the industry to fully recover to where it was before COVID-19.

“Importantly, our model can be used as a support tool for the industry and decision-makers to assess the long term social, economic and environmental impacts of events like climate change on the whale-watching (and tourism)industry.”

Predicting the impacts of climate change is particularly difficult as it’s a challenge to the industry that may cause constant change over time.

“Such subtle changes over time are more likely to go unnoticed by operators in the whale-watching industry, however, the industry must progressively adapt if it wants to thrive,” Dr Meynecke said.

“With no response we’re likely to see a gradual decrease in income overtime from whale watching.”

Dr Richards said that “this study highlights the importance of analysing problems like COVID-19 and climate change from a whole systems perspective.

“It gives us a great template that we can use to assess other potential stressors likely to affect the whale-watching industry, helping work towards a sustainable future for this important sector.”