Tuesday, August 12, 2014

What We Don't See

My family lives on a little rock in the ocean. It's a small island in a small sound that faces almost unimaginable threats. From fishing to aquaculture to logging, from oil and gas and other industrial development to waste incineration plans, we face devastation at every level of the air, land, rivers and sea. And if that wasn't enough, we residents are polluting and destroying habitat with our daily lives at an ever-increasing rate. Our attempts to live sustainably fly out the window when we hear about great events in town and hop on our behemoth ferry to attend. Or when we choose jobs that mean commuting by ferry, vehicle, and sometimes plane. For those of us who grew up here it's easy to feel a warm sense of home in the smell of tar-coated dock pillars and diesel fuel. For others it seems a small sacrifice to damage a bit of shore for a dock or a breakwater. But we forget that we are part of an ecosystem.

Sieving the collected gravel to separate out the size we're looking to sample.
Yesterday our family participated in a workshop on surveying forage fish spawning on our island. Forage fish matter because they, in their various life-stages, are a key element in the local ecology. Well... of course we're all key elements. Perhaps forage fish matter right now to us because we have been blinding ourselves to them. So have you ever scraped off the top layer of sand and gravel from a large area for sandcastle or beach-fort building? I have. And probably a million forage fish embryos along with it.

This is what we learned. Forage fish spawn at high tide just below the highest tide line -- in 6 to 10 inches of water, at the top of their reach on the beach, during the brief slack-tide. The embryos attach themselves to small pebbles in the top couple inches of beach substrate.

More sieving.
The young then drift out to the water column, where they become food for many species, throughout their lives. If they don't survive this beach time (and currently it seems that less than 1% do, although previously the rate was closer to 10 or 15%), that food source is gone. Too many years of this and we could be in an unstoppable downward spiral of species loss that includes ourselves. Oh wait! But probably we already are!

So my family has signed up for this forage fish survey. We'll be taking samples as we learned at the workshop and sending them in for analysis, and hopefully the very intelligent and courageous woman who is heading this important project can continue her advocacy on behalf of forage fish spawning areas.

Winnowing the sieved sand to bring embryos to the top for removal.
But is it enough? Forage fish are an important piece of the puzzle, and yes: every dock that isn't built, every shoreline that isn't obstructed and every forest that continues to lean out and drop its nutrients and shade to protect these embryos is valuable. But humanity is suffering from myopia. We look at our little piece of the puzzle, and we continue to destroy those pieces directly behind our gaze. The water is the life-blood of our planet, and just because we don't often look beneath it, or peer with a microscope between the grains of sand we walk along, doesn't mean those places are less important than, for example, elephants or orangutans. The microscopic world and the macroscopic world are equally essential to our survival and vulnerable to our destructive practices.

Scooping the top layer (hopefully with embryos), into the sample jar for study.
It's time for us to become aware that with every step we take we cause permanent change to our ecosystem. Every single move we make and thought we have makes a difference. What we don't see matters perhaps even more than what we do see, because our ignorance leaves it - and us - vulnerable. When we know that, we might begin to turn around our species' folly and find our way back to survival.

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