Elkhorn Slough / Living in Accord with the Natural State
August 24, 2014
At the end of Monterey's undersea canyon, Elkhorn Slough drains into the ocean. This estuary is a rare sanctuary along the California coast, protected as habitat for the many species that reside there. Most natural harbors throughout the state have been turned into marinas and have been scoured of much of their marine life. The main channel of Elkhorn Slough though has been protected through a combined effort of state and federal government, and private landowners (including the Nature Conservancy). No fishing or extraction of other marine resources is allowed here, so the area is able to sustain healthy populations of sea otters and harbor seals. Within the sheltered waters, they feed within the eel grass, munching on crabs and shellfish amongst the onlooking kayakers and paddle-boarders. Protected places like Elkhorn Slough are illustrations of the kind of healthy ecosystems we should be trying to preserve.
There are few places left on Earth where ecosystems still exist in a truly natural state, unaffected by humans. Often those places that we regard as wild only appear so in comparison to the urbanized world in which we now live. In many ways we've tilted the balance, altering Earth's natural order in a way that's unprecedented. We humans no longer occupy just some small niche within the food chain. The entire planet is our habitat. We dine on a smorgasbord of plants and animals from across the globe. Even those species we don't directly eat are affected by our choices, as we extract the food and nutrients they depend upon, or clear that habitat to make way for other crops or agriculture. Our impact is so widespread, from hunting to ocean acidity to climate, that we see few examples what nature looks like without human influence.
At the same time though, humans can't be seen as completely separate from nature. We too evolved here. Like other species we act in our own self-interest, focused primarily on the preservation of our kind. While we're unique, we're also driven by many of the same biological drives. But across the globe the enormous success of our species is pushing others to the brink, impacting entire food-chains, often with unforeseen consequences to the entire ecosystem's wellbeing.
To illustrate this point, consider the sea otters that reside at Elkhorn Slough. They were once heavily hunted for their pelts, and were almost pushed into extinction, decimated from a worldwide population of hundreds of thousands down to only about 1,000-2,000 individuals. A staple food of sea otters' diets are sea urchins, so with the loss of otters, urchin populations boomed. And since these urchins feed upon kelp, a consequence of of otters almost getting wiped out is that the kelp forests have been shrinking, eaten down to the bare seafloor in what looks like undersea deserts. Sea otters are still listed as endangered species, but due to protections placed on marine mammals in the 70s, their populations are now bouncing back. And in those areas kelp forests are experiencing more rapid growth as a consequence, providing habitat and food for other marine species.
Our understanding of food-chains and ecosystems is still progressing. And yet we have come a long way since the environmental movement started just a few decades ago. We're learning to see the downstream impacts of our actions, and beginning to see the wisdom in living in a healthier balance with nature.