Enamored By The Coast
By Wendy Marsh, Director of Donor Communication & Stewardship
The thing I love the most about tide pools is that they offer a window into the ocean by revealing the fascinating beauty below the surface.
Last week I visited Second Beach, an incredible wilderness coastline in Olympic National Park. The Quileute Needles—jagged, dagger-shaped rock formations—are visible jutting out of the sea. Cliffs line the shoreline and, during low tide, reveal shallow tide pools. I was excited about this trip since I was traveling with members of our conservation and science staff. They are intimately knowledgeable and passionate about our work; seeing nature through their eyes is an incredibly rich experience.
However, my enthusiasm for exploring the tide pools had turned to trepidation after our meeting with NOAA earlier that morning in Port Angeles. I had asked her if she had any insight into the tragically massive die-off of starfish along the Pacific coasts.
Starfish have always seemed indestructible to me; if they lose a leg, it grows back. If you cut one in half, it can regenerate itself into two more individual stars.
But now there is an alarming wasting illness spreading through the starfish population. Similar to a flesh-eating disease, it’s a gruesome way to die. White lesions on the starfish’s limbs appear. Then the tissue surrounding the lesion starts to decay. The body fragments and “melts”, basically turning to goo.
Scientists don’t know what’s causing the disease or its spread, though it’s also possible that the disease is a result of a virus. But they’re not ruling out ocean acidification, lower oxygen levels or warming waters.
Why does this matter? Despite the fact that starfish are fascinating creatures that come in a variety of colors and shapes, they are a “keystone species” – meaning that, like in any stone building, if you remove the keystone, things start to crumble. Other species depend on them. Their extinction would have an extraordinarily significant effect on the biodiversity of their community.
The next day we surveyed the forests and land along the Hoh River. Our work here in the Olympics revolves around restoring salmon. Salmon are another keystone species and a symbol for building support for the conservation of the coastal ecosystems of the Pacific Northwest.
For me, here was an example of how environmental changes on one area create a domino effect on other parts of related ecosystems – in this case, specifically between the Hoh River and the Pacific Ocean.
Salmon make the case since they are also an indicator species. Because their lifecycle takes them from mountain headwaters, to the ocean, and back again, they are a litmus test of sorts for the overall health of our region. When they are healthy, so are our soil, our water, and our food supply. So we need to behave like salmon and bring together forests, rivers, estuaries and the ocean.
Unfortunately, most of the pressing threats to our natural world are anthropogenic (caused by humans): over fishing, land clearing, runoff pollution, removal of old growth forest, urban runoff, water and sediment contamination with toxic substances. The cumulative impact of several stressors has reduced the resiliency of many ecosystems. But we can and are changing all that .
Just as the land and the sea meet at tide pools, TNC’s work is to help these natural assets adjust, adapt, and become resilient in the challenging changing of the tides every day.
I hope you’re a member – I can tell you first hand that there is nothing like the feeling that comes from creating change that is better for the environment and, therefore, ourselves.