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What One Tiny Island Can Teach Us About Our Role in Nature

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Daniel Piraino / flickr
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CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Muskeget Island is a small, sandy island that sits about halfway between Nantucket and Martha’s Vineyard. It’s currently home to the largest population of grey seals in New England. But that’s a relatively new thing. Over the past century, the island has been reshaped – quite literally – by the forces of erosion and sea level rise, but also by human activity.

Crocker Snow, Jr. has seen many of those changes first-hand. He first visited Muskeget in 1949, as a nine-year old boy. His father, who had recently purchased the island, dropped Snow and a friend, and flew back to Nantucket for supplies. For an hour or so, the two boys stood paralyzed by fear while being dive-bombed by agitated herring gulls at the peak of nesting season.

Had they arrived fifty years earlier, there would have been no herring gulls to terrorize them. Instead, they would have been greeted by some quarter of a million terns. But hunting and egg-collecting decimated the tern population. By the mid-1900’s, it’s estimated that tens of thousands of herring and great black-backed gulls were nesting on Muskeget, drawn to the New England coastline by open landfills.

A decade later, another small aircraft shaped the future of those gulls. President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s plane hit a flock of gulls at LaGuardia in 1959, and Eisenhower all but declared war on the birds. Of all the varied methods tried, what eventually reduced and stabilized the gull population was covering landfills.

Through extensive research and his own personal observations, Snow has gathered similar stories of ups and downs in the populations of birds, fish, eel grass, the indigenous Muskeget beach vole, and marine mammals – all at the hands of humans, either deliberately or inadvertently.

It’s the latter – the unanticipated impacts of even well-intentioned actions – that are Snow’s greatest concern right now. Muskeget became a National Natural Landmark in 1992, and a conservation restriction paid for by the Nantucket Land Council went into effect in 2009. Regardless, Snow says humans are still shaping the Muskeget ecosystem.

The most obvious example is the outsized grey seal population. Grey seals were hunted to near extinction prior to the 1970’s. Since the passage of the federal Marine Mammal Protection Act, populations have rebounded, and the shoals around Muskeget have made it a desirable, safe haven, unapproachable by the seals’ only natural predator: great white sharks.

On one hand, that’s a success story. On the other, Snow sees an unsustainable situation and a potential threat to the other protected species that call Muskeget home. Adult grey seals weighing hundreds of pounds could crush a tiny beach vole. They are now breeding in the island’s freshwater pond, a phenomenon never observed before. And researchers have found avian flu in the seals.

In his book, Muskeget: Raw, Restless, Relentless Island, Snow traces a century of ecological change on Muskeget, poses some difficult questions, and advocates a new approach to ecological research and wildlife management. We need to look at the whole ecosystem, he says, and realize that our influence is so pervasive that simply letting nature take its course is no longer an option.