The Lessons that Atolls Can Teach

posted in: July 2012 | 0

Pamela Frierson. The Last Atoll: Exploring Hawai`i’s Endangered Ecosystems. Trinity University Press, 2012. 285 pages + notes, bibliography, and index. $16.95 (paper).

It took author Pamela Frierson more than a decade to work her way up the jewels in the necklace of the Northwestern Hawaiian archipelago and write up her experiences, but the end result was worth it. Frierson, who is a lifelong Hawai`i resident, is not just an elegant wordsmith, but also a dedicated environmentalist who has spent years volunteering in the remote atolls. Her toils – painstaking (and often painful) weeding, tagging, counting, chasing seals – are recounted in The Last Atoll, giving readers an unvarnished picture of the challenges faced by the animals and humans alike who dwell on and around these tiny “water-girt worlds,” to use Frierson’s felicitous phrase.

But the take-home message is not that these islands are a world apart from the one we inhabit. Rather, they are joined with our own to such a degree that almost everything that transpires in the human-populated world has larger-than-life consequences for these mostly uninhabited specks of sand and land. Or, as Frierson puts it, “Like these islands, all of us are being pulled into unknown waters, into a different climate, with the dynamics of earth systems increasingly driven by human-caused alterations. Islands, not singly so much as bound together in the ocean’s watery web, had something to teach us, I felt, about cycles of life in a changing world.”

Thus, one of the first things Frierson does is disabuse the reader of any notion that these islands are in a state of natural grace, untouched by civilization. In Chapter One, she discusses Tern Island, a former Coast Guard LORAN station, describing it as “post-Cold War ghost town,” with abandoned, asbestos-laced buildings housing tangles of guano-encrusted wires.

Originally just 11 acres in size, the island expanded to 53 acres during World War II, when it was used as a refueling station for warplanes. The corroding steel seawall used to hold in the sand – the “steel corset” girdling Tern, as Frierson puts it – is a blessing and a curse: without it, much of the island would collapse into the sea, but in its current decrepit state, it is a death trap for the birds that stumble into its cracks and crevices.

Weaving together both natural and political-social histories, Frierson educates without being pedantic. For those readers – including this one – who think they have a good understanding of the events that led up to the current state of affairs, she manages to serve up a surprisingly large helping of obscure but fascinating facts. In 1896, for example, when the German naturalist Hugo Schauinsland visited Laysan, the native loulu palms were long gone (thanks to H. Hackfield’s guano-mining operations), but sandalwood still grew “luxuriantly on the northwest side” of the island.

Above all, the book is about the non-human inhabitants – the millions of albatrosses, noddies, boobies, terns, petrels, frigate birds, the seals, and the sea turtles – that rely on the northwestern Hawaiian islands for their very survival. Their stories never fail to amaze, and in Frierson’s gifted words, they are riveting.

Consider the impressive navigational skills and site fidelity of the albatross. These birds fly thousands of miles of open ocean, yet are able to return, uncannily, year after year, to the same square meter of land for nesting. “An albatross will likely never land on any other island, on any other patch of land in its life, than its birthplace,” Frierson writes. “Not only does the Midway albatross return to its home island, but the bird gets as close as possible to the exact spot of the nest where it was raised.”

An albatross will return to its nesting spot “even if it has changed for the worst, in fact even if it has lost nearly all the qualities that made it attractive in the first place,” Frierson writes. And so, on Midway’s Sand Island, Laysan albatross “nest thickly near some of the buildings, where the birds must have faced much disturbance.” Even in ironwood forests, “one comes across Laysans laboriously waddling through the woods to nesting sites deep among the trees,” even as seemingly attractive, open areas are much less densely populated. Those are areas created by the military with fill during World War II, “and the albatrosses have still not fully claimed it,” Frierson says.

As abundant as the birds seem to be, and as concerted and extensive as restoration efforts have been, their populations face grave risks nonetheless. High levels of toxins – including PCBs and DDE – are showing up in both black-footed and Laysan albatrosses. Expected results include thinner shells (leading to less successful hatch rates), drooping wings, and other birth defects.

The problems associated with ubiquitous plastic pollution in the ocean are more visible, if no less serious. The skeletal carcasses of young birds, rib cages enfolding hundreds of grams of assorted plastic waste, are to be found everywhere albatross nest.

Perhaps the most subtle problem of all is the one that will be the most difficult to address: climate change. “Predicted sea level rise in this century could claim anywhere from 3 percent to 65 percent of terrestrial habitat on the lowest Northwestern Islands,” Frierson writes. She then asks biologist John Klavitter, who has devoted his career to restoration projects in the archipelago, how he looks “at the grim possibility that climate change could undo hard-won gains.”

“Not happily,” he replies. “At French Frigate Shoals, we’ve already seen some erosion, with one tiny island, Whale-Skate, disappearing completely. No one can say absolutely global warming is the cause – these very small islands in a lagoon system are ephemeral. But we can look at the effect and start planning.”

The disappeared island left female monk seals with fewer desirable areas to pup. As a result, Klavitter says, fewer of their offspring survived.

In the first three months of 2011 alone, nature delivered a series of devastating blows to the islands. Storms in January and February decimated the Laysan and black-footed albatross chicks. When the tsunami following the March earthquake in Japan reached Midway, it hit the survivors hard. Altogether, more than a fifth of the young albatross – more than 110,000 – died, and at least 2,000 adult albatross were killed.

Yet Frierson ends her book on a note of hope, recounting the fate of the celebrated short-tail albatross chick, the first ever recorded in the Hawaiian archipelago. Following the January storm, she writes, Klavitter surveyed the area of the chick’s nest. “My heart sank,” he told Frierson. “The whole area … was washed out, all the albatross nests destroyed, dead chicks everywhere.”

“With little hope left, he checked the naupaka bushes a hundred feet inland. There he found the chick, bedraggled but very much alive.”

When the March tsunami struck, “Once again the short-tail chick went on a wild ride. Amid thousands of injured or dead albatrosses he was, once again, a survivor. On June 11, 2011, the gawky but healthy adolescent left Midway to become a citizen of the North Pacific until, a few years from now, his hormones urge him home.”

— Patricia Tummons

Volume 23, Number 1 July 2012

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