Scientists who’ve been studying tiny Tatoosh Island off the northwestern tip of the Olympic Peninsula for decades say there has been a disturbing decline in wildlife there.
Because of its isolation, climate, and location in the Pacific Ocean, the uninhabited island is home to many nesting seabirds, several marine mammals, and a diverse community of marine plants and animals.
It’s a prime nesting site for one of the largest seabird colonies off the coast of Washington, with up to 5,000 common murres nesting and breeding there.
The New York Times has a fascinating piece about the environmental changes observed on Tatoosh by Robert Paine, a retired zoology professor from the University of Washington.
At the age of 79, he visits Tatoosh Island several times a year to continue the research he started in 1967. University of Chicago biology professors Cathy Pfister and Timothy Wootton join him.
An excerpt from the article: “Among the declines the researchers are noticing: historically hardy populations of gulls and murres are only half what they were 10 years ago, and only a few chicks hatched this spring. Mussel shells are notably thinner, and recently the mussels seem to be detaching from rocks more easily and with greater frequency.
Goose barnacles are also suffering, and so are the hard, splotchy, wine-colored coralline algae, which appear like graffiti along rocky shorelines.
While not entirely understood, the declines are not entirely mysterious. Biologists suspect that the shifts are related to huge declines in the waterâ€™s pH, a shift attributed to the absorption of excess carbon dioxide being released into the atmosphere in ever-greater amounts by the burning of fossil fuels for energy.
As the carbon dioxide is absorbed, it alters the oceanic water chemistry, turning it increasingly acidic. Barnacles, oysters and mussels find it more difficult to survive, which can cause chain reactions among the animals that eat those species, like birds and people.”
Photo courtesy the Makah Tribe environmental restoration team