The Destruction of Another World
The ocean. Despite its covering nearly three fourths of the Earth’s surface area, most humans know strikingly little about it. The few facts that most people do know are often acquired from simply going to the beach and observing the wildlife. Unfortunately, this very action is destroying the shorelines and ruining entire ecosystems.
The Pacific Northwest is currently a beautiful land, and the many different biomes, from the dense forests to the desolate beaches, combine to create one of the most ecologically diverse and scenic places on the planet. According to The Oregonian, this region is unlike any other known ecosystem (Oregonian). However, there are many issues facing it currently that are not well known outside of the scientific community. While most people are no doubt aware of some of the more acute issues, such as deforestation by logging companies, there is currently an equally worrying problem that is not well publicized. This problem is the tourism that flocks to the Oregon coast every summer. When people go to the beach to have a good time and get away from the problems of life, they are unwittingly killing many marine animals along the shoreline that will never be replaced. This sheer ignorance of the natural world is disturbing to me; how could we be killing animals and not feel even one bit of remorse?
Many of these problems occur in tidepools, which are a component of the intertidal zone. The intertidal zone is the zone of the coastline that is affected by the tides; tidepools the rocky areas of the this zone that are almost covered completely at high tide, but leave pools of water behind when the tide goes out. These marine oases are home to an incredible amount of organisms from many different taxa, and are some of the richest locations on the planet. (Stow).
The Pacific Northwest tidepools are one of the greatest examples of a tidepool ecosystem. Unfortunately, tourism is common along the Oregon coast, and one common destination for said tourists is the tidepools at Haystack Rock (Rollins). According to Bo Ensign, a ranger at the nearby Ecola State Park, the Oregon coast tidepools are one of the most fragile ecosystems on the planet. Ensign states that most creatures in the intertidal zone can only live in specific locations, as if organisms go too low, they will be eaten by other organisms, while if they go too high, they will not be exposed to water for long enough.
When I first got to Ecola State Park to meet with Ensign, one thing really struck me; the forest was remarkably well preserved. While driving to the ranger station, all I saw besides greenery was the single weathered road I was driving on and a few small hiking trails branching off. Other than these, there were no signs of humans until the ranger station. It was almost as though the park was a small area that was isolated from civilization, even though there was a coastal community approximately one mile away. There were no clear-cuts, no logging roads, and no cars passing me. On this road, I could almost forget what us humans have done to nature.
When I first got to the ranger station, Ensign was waiting outside the building, a modest wooden shack. After some introductions, Ensign led me inside the small abode. I had been expecting this station to look like a small, unkempt shack, and I was partially correct. While the wood was clearly treated, the smell of weathered wood was present around the shack. Inside the shack, the musky smell was not overpowering, but was present, and the shack itself was a mess. While there were no papers strewn across the floor, the shelves had seemingly no organization whatsoever; there were many unrelated objects sitting next to each other. In the next and last room there was a small desk with not much more than a computer, as well as a single cabinet. It was almost as though this building was modeled to contrast sharply with the apparent peacefulness of the outside world, but as we started talking, it became apparent that the shoreline was not so peaceful after all.
According to a study done by Loana Addessi of the San Diego State University Department of Biology, humans have had a negative impact on marine life on the coast of California near San Diego. While the tourism there is no doubt higher than it is at the Oregon Coast, the same problems will surely present themselves in Oregon, just not in such an extreme way. Addesdi showed that the density of species in the areas where people often go tidepooling was much smaller than the density of organisms in the undisturbed areas of the tidepools. Addessi argues that harsher laws for taking marine organisms need to be put into effect, or the destruction of this entire biome could become a reality (Addessi). James Bussell, Ian Lucas, and Ray Seed of the University of Wagner School of Ocean Sciences have done a similar study, with similar results being reported (Bussell, Lucas, and Seed). In addition, according to a study done by K. Beauchamp and M. of the University of California Santa Cruz Center for Coastal Marine Studies, locations where organisms are often trampled by humans have an even smaller amount of biodiversity than what people may expect. Since all organisms in ecosystems depend on each other to survive and thrive, this makes sense, as one organism dying out would have a substantial effect on the larger population.
While Oregon, a state known for being environmentally friendly, has stiff laws regarding protection of marine organisms (Rollins), tourism continues to have a drastically negative impact on marine life, especially in tidepools. According to Ensign, Haystack Rock, a 225-foot tall volcanic plug off the coast of Cannon Beach, Oregon, famous for its tidepools, used to get “decimated” by tourism. One of the biggest problems was that people would constantly step on organisms such as barnacles and mussels without regard for the fact that they were, in fact, killing living organisms. For some reason, people would also take many organisms home, despite the fact that there is no way that the organisms could survive outside of their natural habitat (Stow). Even when people simply take organisms off rocks to look at them and then set them on a random rock somewhere, the organisms are being harmed and even killed in some instances, as organisms can only live in certain zones of the intertidal zone. Fortunately, a special ordinance was placed on Haystack Rock, making it illegal to touch any organisms there, but Ensign tells me that these same problems still occur at other, less frequently visited tidepools across Oregon.
Another problem that exists for animals in the intertidal zone, albeit only the mobile ones such as birds, is that when humans try to feed the animals, they become less scared of humans in the future, and are more likely to end up in the bath of a human, where they run the risk of being stepped on or taken. These animals also start to associate humans with food, so when they see humans, they think that they are getting fed, and will sometimes be aggressive towards humans until they are fed. Ensign says that this can often cause the animals to be dangerous, as they will occasionally actually attack the humans until they receive the food that they are expecting. It can also stop these organisms from having their natural diet, which can have many different effects on the organisms, according to Ensign. Ensign says that one of these effects is that since the animals stop eating their natural prey, the prey species will become overpopulated, which is disastrous for ecosystems. These problems are not just limited to the tidepools along the coast, but also happen in other ecosystems, such as the coastal forest and the beach.
You may think: “Well, if the only problem affecting tidepools is humans’ going to see the organisms, why don’t we simply make all the tidepools off-limits to people?” Unfortunately, the assumption here is wrong; people disturbing the organisms’ ecosystem is not the only reason that tidepool life is currently in trouble. Ensign states that heavy metals, such as mercury, lead, and even metals like tin are washed into the ocean from older marinas and docks that were built before the environment became a concern. These metals wash into the ocean and eventually wind up inside the bodies of the tidepool animals, where the metals can cause many health problems, including death. According to Ensign, a study was done that showed that a chemical called Tributol Tin, which was used to keep animals in the phylum Mollusca from growing on boats, could easily get into the water and the bodies of other mollusks. The study showed that oysters that have been exposed to this chemical have much softer shells than other oysters. This makes them more vulnerable to predators, and also reduces the shells’ resistance to the pounding waves. What is more, according to Ensign, some animals can even can change sex when exposed to heavy metals, something that we would think of as impossible in normal situations. Although this phenomenon is present naturally in some fish, it is not naturally present in all organisms that this chemically induced sex change has been observed in.
Tsunami debris from Japan have also caused problems for marine life in Oregon. As there is much plastic in the debris field, the aforementioned problems with animals ingesting plastic are magnified at the moment. For example, Ensign states that at one point, people at the coast found a seagull that had ingested multiple plastic bottles, some of them likely coming from inside prey that the seagull had eaten. Just think about this: multiple partially digested plastic bottles inside of one fairly small organism. That one seagull can eat so many plastic bottles really shows how much waste, much of it recyclable, gets thrown into our oceans without a second thought.
The constant denial of anthropomorphic global climate change by much of the world’s population is something that has always caused me to pause and think about humanity. Ensign, who believes that anthropomorphic global climate change is occurring, said that this climate change would cause creatures in the intertidal zone to migrate upwards. As most animals can only live in one portion of the intertidal zone, many species would be become extinct due to having to move due to increasing sea levels. Ensign did say that he is not sure if anthropomorphic global climate change has had any other effects on the coastal ecosystems, as he does not have any evidence on the topic, and has not done any research into it. However, research done by Frederick Short of the Department of Natural Resources and Hilary Neckles of the U.S. Geological Survey shows that seagrass populations are reduced in size by global climate change (Short & Neckles), and as a result, it is likely that other species are as well.
One problem with hurting marine life is that it produces a snowball effect. In a study done by Mathew Bracken and Katrina Nielson, it is shown that the diversity of algae increases with the diversity of invertebrates (Bracken & Nielson), showing that if one species becomes more populous, others will as well, and vice-versa. Ensign backs up this study by saying that once one species is extinct, all species that depend on that species for food will become extinct. This causes a snowball effect, where many species eventually become extinct, as every organism that depends on the now-extinct one will become extinct. In addition, even prey of extinct species will become much less prominent due to the resulting overpopulation due to their not being hunted anymore.
After Ensign and I parted ways, I went down to the coast to look at the tidepools, but I was careful that I kept my distance from the animals, plants, and seaweeds. I wanted to make sure that I did not harm any organisms. The first thing I noticed was that, from a distance, it was somewhat hard to see the incredible biodiversity of this area, even at low tide. About the only organisms I could see were masses of red and brown seaweeds, an insane amount of barnacles and mussels, and a few other organisms. As I slowly crept closer to the awe-inspiring ecosystem, the diversity became more and more apparent. Eventually, when I got right up to the edge of the protected area, the diversity was incredible. Sea anemones were present in nearly every area where sunlight would never reach, and even a few sea stars and sea urchins were present in the lowest reaches of crevasses. I did not dare go farther into the tidepools, as there was nowhere I could step without crushing an organism under my feet. I stopped here and watched nature for a while. No doubt because it was a rainy day, there was no one else snooping around the tidepools, but this only served to increase the serenity of this moment. The pounding of the waves against the rocks was truly a powerful noise; you could imagine that the earth was opening up, sending you straight down into a chasm. After about 15 minutes of listening to the crashing waves, I noticed that the water was slowly creeping ever closer to me. It was time for me to leave this place, as much as I may have wanted to stay.
The fact that humanity can be so ignorant of the problems we are forcing on these organisms is disturbing. Would you find it OK if someone were mistreating his or her fellow humans to near-death? Well, this is what we are doing to these tidepool animals, and despite the naïve belief by that these animals do not feel pain, or any other sense, we have no way of knowing whether or not they do. It appears that Friedrich Nietzsche was right when he said: “The pride connected with knowing and sensing lies like a blinding fog over the eyes and senses of men, thus deceiving them concerning the value of existence.” We have lost the value of the existence of these creatures and ecosystems due to our pride.
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