Last Friday was the first day of a new year, a good time for new beginnings. I have always found the question about New Year’s resolutions awkward, because I try to live my life a day at a time and make the most of every day. Should that not mean that a year is a progression of small resolutions of how to change ones life a step at a time? I find that resolutions build up slowly, like an egg that takes so much time to develop and only hatches when it’s ripe. In the same way a problem or disharmony in one’s life may start to slowly nag on one’s mind until it can’t be ignored, needs to be pondered and then may lead to a resolution about what to do about it.
I am no psychologist, but I am sure that there are people who will make such resolutions and are always optimistic that they can change life for the better and those that suffer the nagging of the wrongs around them without acting upon them. The most common excuse is not to know how to change the circumstances; one person is just too insignificant to make a difference to the bigger issues.
Last week, while making sure to live every day to its fullest, I ventured to Buskin beach, where a low tide coincided with a gorgeous winter sunrise. The light reflected off the wet sand and piles of washed-up seaweed looked like sculptures twisted and turned and rolled up to large sausages of kelp with occasional tube worm tufts sticking out. A thin layer of frost reflected the morning sun and gave them a natural light. Along the beach the receding water layered the lighter volcanic sand to the surface and the heavier and darker basalt underneath it. Everywhere water flowed, it painted intricate designs of black veins into a lighter beach, leaving pictures that reminded me of branches of trees, mini river valleys, or blood veins in a tissue, all of which are images of the pulsing of life.
In stark contrast to the beauty of these images were the bodies of dead birds washed up in the tide line. Some of them were groteskly disfigured, either half eaten by crows, eagles or seagulls, or simply in a state of dacay. Others looked like they had recently and peacefully gone to sleep. One little dead body was suspended in a tide pool as if it were still diving and looking for food. There were so many that on my way back I counted them. Twenty-seven common murres and three crested auklets was the sad tally of my personal after-Christmas dead bird count.
As I have reported before, the bird die-off of 2015 is commonly blamed on the large-scale changes in the North Pacific caused by a large blob of warm water that moved northward along the coast. This year, which is an El Nino event year, it is followed by more warm water, making a bad situation worse. In very simplified and abbreviated terms, you can think of warm surface waters as the equivalent of a desert landscape with few nutrients, little to eat and uncomfortable circumstances for most life forms. Cold water that comes from the depths of the ocean, on the other hand, has collected nutrients over time and acts like a fertilizer, fueling growth and life. The prevalent theory to explain the many dead birds is that the usual feeding places have provided no food this year. The plankton was lacking the nutrient supply and the feeder fish were lacking the plankton and either moved somewhere else or just didn’t hatch and survive in their usual numbers, leaving the seabirds with nothing to eat.
While there is no resolution I can think of that would directly help the sea birds feed, everything is connected and one action may lead to effects elsewhere. In chaos theory there is something called a butterfly effect, which describes that when one changes one small thing it may have cascading effects on other situations. Being an optimistic person, I take some hope from this: If we can make the little changes in the right places perhaps we can make a big difference to the things that really matter on a global scale.
The warm blob in the North Pacific Ocean is linked to global climate change and the general warming of temperatures, particularly sea surface temperatures. While the warming may have occurred without the help of humans, the rate of change is accelerated by our actions. In other words, things are heating up more quickly. This causes trouble for animals to adjust. For example, the sudden occurrence of the warm water in feeding areas of the common murre has left the birds without food and with no time to adjust to alternative food sources or seek refuge in other areas. Thus, their bodies show up mangled and dead in the tide line at Buskin Beach.
Next to their bodies another problem is screaming for attention. Whenever I am at a beach these days and try to open my mind to the beauty of the magnificent nature around me, I feel like I need blinders to block out some of the more unpleasant sights of the discards of human convenience. Over the last year I have made it a habit to never leave the beach without picking up at least one piece of garbage. Buskin is a prime example of a beach that collects local debris, as well as items washed up from further away and one does not have to look far. Fishing gear, beverage bottles and cups, cans, huge amounts of styrofoam, broken up and thrown everywhere in pieces of every size, and fishing gear, lines, net fragments and fish box packaging strips are the most prevalent.
Those of you who read my column regularly may be growing tired of the marine debris topic, which seems to be returning like the pile of monthly bills in the mail. I am convinced that one day in the near future the worldwide problem of marine debris will become a prevalent topic in international politics, similar in size to climate change.
And in both cases, while no one person can change or solve the problem, everyone of us can make a difference. If every person that goes to the beach every time picked up a couple of items, 1,000 visitors would remove 2,000 pieces of debris, possibly saving several marine animals from getting entangled in it. If every person in Kodiak could prevent only two pieces of trash from reaching the ocean by making sure their trash cans don’t blow over in the wind and the birds don’t carry trash onto the beach or into the forests, we could keep 12,000 pieces of trash from becoming marine debris. If half the people in Kodiak used reusable shopping bags every time, at an estimated seven bags per week per household and almost 3,000 households, that would save10,500 plastic bags every week.
This simple math may have flaws, but it shows the snowball effect of our small actions. It may not seem like we have the individual power to make a difference in problems so big, but if everyone uses that as an excuse not to make those little promises to change the world one step at a time, we will have to blame ourselves if nothing changes. If I have learned one thing over the years, it’s that if we want something done right, we have to start by doing it right.
If you made your New Year’s resolutions last week, please think of the sea birds starving and the marine mammals getting entangled in old nets and packaging loops and the fish that mistake tiny plastic pieces for food, and make just one promise to them to change your life style this year. There are many things you can do for our amazing oceans and all of them are simple little things: no more plastic shopping bags, no more one-way coffee cups, no more plastic water bottles, bring your own silverware to potluck parties, choose to buy less plastic, talk to people about how you want to make a change for the better or pick up a piece of trash every day on your way to work. All each of us has to do is a small contribution, the snowball effect and the butterfly effect will make our efforts worthwhile.
The question is not if it can be done, the question is will you do it? We have an amazing planet, we live on an Island with some of the most beautiful beaches in the world. Do we deserve them?