Reclaiming coastal rock

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“Remote islands are Canada’s most endangered ecosystem,” said Ian Jones, a professor of biology with Memorial University who specializes in seabirds and island conservation.

An island qualifies as remote if its ecosystem formed more or less in the absence of the continents, lacking mostly or entirely in mammals and catering heavily to birds and marine life. In the absence of predators these animals of wing and fin flourished, giving rise to the feathered kingdom depicted by the long dead explorers who first described them. And because these havens were so far removed from the meddling of the mainland, evolution shaped their inhabitants differently to create species wholly new. This is why many remote islands host endemic species – plants and animals which can’t be found anywhere else on Earth. Their islands moulded them, and in turn they moulded their islands.

Imagine such ecosystems, lively and without predation, scattered across the oceans of the world. Then imagine the ecological shock brought about by the age of exploration, as sailors from Europe raced to adorn them with flags of various colours. Ships like those of Captain James Cook saw the discovery of essentially all these islands by the dawn of the 1800s, allowing what kilometres of ocean should have made impossible – the invasion of rats, cats, dogs, pigs, cattle, horses, sheep and pests to the remote islands of the world.

“So you had the transformation of these hyper-remote, fragile island ecosystems into European pastures, so highly degraded,” said Jones.

Settlers of these islands brought with them rifles, axes, ploughs and the rest, but as these communities shrank or failed, our longest lived impact was the introduction of mainland animals, their appetites preventing the recovery of these isles even today. And those of Atlantic Canada are no except.

Our only window into the past of our own coastal islands is anecdotal, such as the written accounts of French explorer Samuel de Champlain who described some of the early expeditions along Nova Scotia’s southern shore.

My favourite entries come from May of 1604 when a ship he crewed came across the “Sea Wolf Islands,” as he christened them, known today as the Tusket Islands off Yarmouth. Reading his descriptions, I lament that such natural wonders no longer grace our coastline.

“In one, we saw so great a quantity of birds, called penguins (the now extinct Great Auk), that we killed easily with sticks,” wrote Champlain. “On another, we found the shore completely covered with sea-wolves (seals), of which we captured as many as we wished. At the two others there is such an abundance of birds of different sorts that one could not imagine it, if he had not seen them. There are cormorants, three kinds of duck, geese, bustards, sea-parrots, snipe, vultures and other birds of prey; gulls, sea-larks of two or three kinds; herons, large sea-gulls, curlews, sea-magpies, divers, ospreys, ravens, cranes, and other sorts which I am not acquainted with, and which also make their nests here.”

In this paragraph he asks us to imagine the sort of islands which no longer exist, their isolation ended by Samuel and others, their past abundance now restricted to the pages of his journal. Today many of the Tusket Islands are host to feral sheep which graze away their vegetation, the seabird colonies witnessed by Champlain long since diminished. In fact, compared to the rest of Atlantic Canada, the demise of Nova Scotia’s coastal isles stands out.

“As someone involved with global island conservation, I regard Nova Scotia as a graveyard for island flora and fauna,” said Jones. “Almost all of its islands have had introduced animals which have damaged or destroyed native species. Nova Scotia, for its area and coastline, has incredibly few breeding seabirds, even compared to the adjacent State of Maine.”

Seal Island is a fine example, the most informative anecdote for which comes from American ornithologist Arthur Cleveland Bent, who visited this island in 1914, 30 kilometres south of Yarmouth, Nova Scotia, on the southern fringe of the Tusket Isles. In his account, Bent refers to a colony of Leach’s Storm Petrels and, given the island’s location, size and historic evidence, Jones estimates they once numbered in the hundreds of thousands, if not more.

“On Seal Island, Nova Scotia, in July, 1914, I saw a large and populous colony scattered over the heavily wooded portion of the island,” wrote Bent. “In a large burnt area their burrows were scattered thickly among the stumps and on the edges of the spruce forest along the shore, where there was plenty of soft soil, the ground was fairly honeycombed with their burrows among the roots of the trees. This seemed rather unusual to me, as all the other colonies that I had seen were in open, treeless situations.”

What Arthur witnessed was one of the eastern shore’s largest colonies of Storm Petrels – or so Ian has suggested – in the throes of decline, falling victim to the menaces we brought to their shores. He goes on.

“On Seal Island a Newfoundland dog, owned by the lighthouse keeper, spent much of his time hunting for and digging out petrel burrows. Apparently he did this purely for the sport of it, for we found the bodies of the petrels lying where he had killed them; perhaps the strong-smelling oily fluid which the birds ejected prevented his eating them, but did not discourage his digging out and killing them. After a few years of this persistent hunting I learned that this large and populous colony had been practically exterminated.”

With the help of introduced Norway rats, Red squirrels, feral sheep, cats, dogs and more, the extermination of this colony has been long since completed. Any seabird who dares land here now is confronted with rodent predators they have no natural defences against. And today the face of this island has been grazed considerable, its forests unable to regenerate.

“The very thing which makes remote islands fragile and prone to damage in fact makes them potentially very easy to restore and protect,” said Jones. “Nature has a remarkable ability to restore balance when disturbing factors are removed, and the success of [similar projects on] islands around the world have been spectacular. Where measured, they’ve been really extraordinary, beyond all bounds of probability.”

Like the eradication of rats and caribou from South Georgia Island in the South Atlantic, the removal of feral sheep from Guadalupe off Mexico’s northwest coast or ongoing work to rid New Zealand of its non-native species, the restoration of remote islands has allowed seabirds to once again take hold, and has even led to the rediscovery of species thought extinct. Were it not for a lack of public awareness and political will, Jones said such projects could be carried out on Seal Island and elsewhere with relatively small investments of time and money. Speaking personally, that sound like a small price to pay for the wonders revealed to Samuel de Champlain.

Zack Metcalfe is a freelance journalist, columnist and author active across the Maritimes.

Shown above are the sheep of Whitehead Island, N.S. (Zack Metcalfe photo)