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Sunday, September 8, 1996 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Tatoosh Island -- Testing Nature's Limits -- We Humans Tend To Keep Fishing, Logging Or Developing On The Assumption That What Didn't Break An Ecosystem Yesterday Won't Break It Tomorrow. Zoologist Robert Paine Thinks That Confidence Is Misplaced.

Seattle Times Science Reporter

Life is hard.

Life is resilient.

No one understands these truisms better than University of Washington zoologist Robert Paine, pilgrim and witness to the surf-battered shores of Tatoosh Island.

His quarter-century of study on the wild island has turned what is the most northwesterly point of the contiguous 48 states, six-tenths of a mile off the Olympic Peninsula's Cape Flattery, into a Galapagos-like ecology laboratory of the American coast. And Paine himself is the island's Darwin, a scientist who can point to a vivid example of nature's fury and tenacity.

He showed how a winter wave in 1972 broke loose a 38-ton slab of Tatoosh rock, flipped it upside down and hurled it 40 feet. A dining-room-size swath of barnacles and seaweed were obliterated in seconds.

The amazing thing is not this evidence of the ocean's power, said Paine. Rather, it is that the barnacles, seaweed and rubbery sea palm on adjacent rock, exposed to the same crushing wave, survived.

Indeed, they thrived. The storm-washed tidal life on Tatoosh Island explodes in stunning fecundity, its crystalline pools a bowl of blue and green, and red and orange, and purple and pink life waiting for the rhythmic rain of food brought by the heaving sea.

Washington boasts the richest temperate tidal system in the world. Our plant and animal production per acre is 14 times that of the ocean average.

This is brought home on Tatoosh Island, which was returned from

the Coast Guard to the Makah Tribe of nearby Neah Bay in 1982. The Makahs have subsequently done the rest of the state a favor by keeping all but Paine and a handful of his research students off it.

The result is an undisturbed, marvelous reminder of a Pacific Northwest that has been lost elsewhere: life piled upon life, each organism wrestling for its own square centimeter of rock, eating and being eaten, and coexisting in a bewildering variety of natural wars and alliances that Paine has spent his whole life sorting out.

"These organisms duke it out for real estate," he explains. The tidal fringe is "more productive than a corn field" in its mass of organisms. The result has been more than 100 scientific papers by various researchers that in sum bear a disquieting message:

Nature rebounds, but it may not be quite the snug, stable, motherly cushion from human folly that we hope. "You push an ecological system too far and suddenly all the rules change," warned Paine.

A loner in the world of "Big Science"

Not that the scientist is gloomy; his enthusiasm is infectious. At 63, he leaps and scampers on the barnacled rocks with the enthusiasm of a 10-year-old. A rangy 6-foot-6, he wears a broad-brimmed floppy hat, probes with a meter stick, and knows Tatoosh's nooks and crannies better than most of us know our own garden.

He is also something of a maverick. While he chairs a Zoology Department at the University of Washington that is perennially ranked one of the best in America, he refers to that bureaucratic role as "the other Bob Paine."

A loner in a world of Big Science, he has shunned the possibility of making Tatoosh part of a network of Long Term Ecological Research sites set up around the globe. Paperwork? Regimentation? Collecting data for the sake of data? No thanks. The relatively modest $80,000 research money Paine gets per year from the National Science Foundation buys him all the freedom and supplies he needs.

The scientist has been studying the biology of the Cape Flattery region for 33 years and Tatoosh specifically since 1970, after he snuck ashore from a kayak in 1968. It is one of the longest ongoing studies of a single area, by the same ecologist, in the nation.

Roughly twice a month in summer and once a month in winter for several days at a time, he boats or helicopters to the wild rock with a handful of students to record biologic change regardless of sun, fog, hurricane winds or drenching rain. That means 60 to 80 days on the 16-acre island per year - year after year after year. "I never tire of it," he said. "It's always changing."

Drinking water comes from an old Navy cistern, heat from collected driftwood, and, in season, some of the food is caught from the sea.

The scientist is also an oddity in this age of relentless self-promotion, as little known outside his field as he is renowned and controversial inside it for his willingness to modify the environment instead of simply observing it, in order to conduct experiments.

He is so low-key that he declined to put his name on a popular book of tide-pool photographs that he wrote the text for. He boasts about the awards his students have won but only reluctantly talks about his own. He seems proudest of teaching a lecture class of undergraduates.

Yet he does not shy from controversy: He and his students have just written a paper criticizing scientific research into the effects of the Exxon Valdez oil spill, calling the millions of dollars spent a missed opportunity of ill-devised studies that provided few firm answers.

And at Tatoosh, he quietly - too quietly, perhaps - calls into question much of what passes as human "management" of nature, warning that our tendency to only think and care about one species at a time invites disappointing results. Similarly, he warns, our hope nature will forever sustain, our pressure invites disaster.

One of his former students, Jennifer Ruesink of the University of British Columbia, tested natural limits by dropping hermit crabs into a Tupperware container cemented on wave-washed rocks. The crabs eat microscopic plants called diatoms, which in turn shade algae, the base of the food chain, from drying out. How many crabs could the tiny enclosure sustain? One crab was fine. So was two. And three. Then, with a fourth, the whole system broke down and everything died.

An enclosure that seemed to be able to sustain an ever-increasing population abruptly, with the addition of one too many, collapsed without warning.

Similarly, nature's toughness means we humans tend to keep fishing, logging or developing on the assumption that what didn't break an ecosystem yesterday won't break it tomorrow. Paine thinks that confidence is misplaced, and argues about it regularly with the fisherman who ferries him to the island.

The scientist's frustration is that his kind of research is ignored and that our resulting ignorance makes us clumsy: That we're paying the price in a collapse of fish populations, salmon for example, a decline of the rich marine ecosystem of the San Juans, and loss of species in Puget Sound.

"There are 1,000 species out here and we know something about 50 of them," Paine said, kneeling to part a curtain of seaweed and reveal the riot of rock-clinging life underneath. "We have a long way to go. I wonder how much time is left. Puget Sound is a vastly different place than it was 100 years ago."

He cited a survey by a colleague who could find only half the crab species near Puget Sound's Deception Pass he could find a generation ago. Or the over-fishing of Puget Sound bottom fish that were a century old and will take that long to recover. Or the aggressive harvest of tidal life for Asian markets and tables. Or the dangerous decline of starfish in the San Juans caused simply by casual collection by families of tourists.

We're changing what we don't fully understand, Paine warns. And to make his point, he takes visitors to The Glacier.

The `Glacier' that Paine built

In winter, Tatoosh is so storm-lashed that Paine can arrive only by helicopter, but in summer when seas are calmer, visitors are taxied by chartered runabout from Neah Bay. The island's front porch consists of outlying rocks where bull sea lions roar warnings, and its doormat is a forest of red kelp that undulates in the swells. Paine rows out in his rubber Zodiac boat to provide transport for the last few yards, clouds of birds shrieking as if to protest trespass of their refuge.

From the sole, short beach, one ascends more than 100 feet on a path and concrete stairs built by the Coast Guard to the mostly treeless, tablelike plateau on top.

Tatoosh is an old remnant of Cape Flattery cut off by the sea. On it is an unmanned lighthouse, the ruins of other buildings, and a head-high thicket of salmonberry that covers everything except where Paine and his students keep grassy paths clear with a power lawn mower.

Accounts differ about whether Tatoosh was named for a Makah chief or the tribal word for thunderbird or a Chinook jargon word for breast, but its location means it has had a lighthouse almost as long as Seattle has existed.

At the height of World War II, Navy, Coast Guard and National Weather Service personnel brought the island's population up to 80 or 90 men and women. Their supplies were lifted off ship decks with a long boom on a wood platform that still juts from a cliff.

Since 1976, the lighthouse has been automated, powered today by solar panels. Most of the old buildings are removed or in ruins. Today, whales sometimes surface offshore and murres and puffins and gulls nest in the cliffs. Cormorants claim one rock with a weird groan that echoes through the sea caves like murmurs that are vaguely human.

Eagles and peregrine falcons from the mainland patrol overhead. Fossil whale bones jut from sandstone banks. Old Indian middens of cast-off shells and bones dribble down cliffs. Sea caves and arches turn the plateau into a grand sculpture. One begins to understand Paine's fascination with the place.

Like a castle defended by a moat, Tatoosh is romantic in its isolation. Two of Paine's graduate students, Tim Wooton and Cathy Pfister, fell in love after meeting on the island and later married. Now faculty members at the University of Chicago, they have worked on Tatoosh ever since, and hope to take over the long-term study when Paine retires.

The work day is dictated by the tides, which on a recent summer morning meant Paine was rousing his team out of their sleeping bags at 5:15 a.m., the students emerging from the old maintenance buildings used for shelter into a cool fog. After a hasty cold breakfast, they went down the stairs and fanned out over the vast platter of rocks, sub-islands and sea caves that low tide exposes on Tatoosh, revealing the garden of the ocean.

Naturalists are out of fashion and something of a dying breed these days, pushed aside by the sexier realms of microbiology and computer simulations. It's the lab where the money goes, promising quicker insights.

And even though the Earth has millions of species that have yet to be recorded, let alone understood, urban residents may wonder why taxpayers should support tide-pool studies at all. One or two centuries ago, everyone was an amateur naturalist because life depended on it: We farmed, hunted, fished and gathered. But today, food comes from Safeway, and clothing from plastics. Get relevant, right?

Paine disagrees. He believes the natural world has a thousand lessons we have yet to learn and, moreover, the best way to understand nature is to first observe it, then manipulate it.

So he "invented" an ecosystem. He created The Glacier.

The Glacier is at the seaward side of a Tatoosh sibling called Strawberry Island, joined to the main island at low tide. To get there, one has to jump a small chasm from one slippery perch to another, the channel cut by a finger of the sea.

The jump is psychologically intimidating enough that one student took 10 minutes screwing up the courage to make her first crossing. It would probably be easy enough to crudely bridge the gap each summer with driftwood, but Paine leaves it as is, as gate and warning.

Almost all those who have studied Tatoosh have fallen into the sea at one time or another. Sometimes, it is just a chill dip in a tide pool, but Paine suffered three cracked ribs in one fall, and later had his skin shredded by barnacles as a wave scraped him along the rocks. One colleague was washed into a cliff cleft and had to be hauled out by rope. A visiting mathematician toppled off a cliff and had to be helicoptered to a hospital. Paine's safety record is actually good over a quarter-century, but he works at the edge of a fierce, uncompromising ecosystem.

The Glacier is at that edge, a stupendous bank of mussels about half the length of a football field. What Paine did was remove by hand all the starfish called pisaster that prey on mussels, and then spent years watching the explosion of black shellfish that resulted. The resulting mass is so heavy it droops like a glacier crawling down a mountain.

The mussels are so thick they have displaced barnacles, seaweed, limpets, chitons and coralline algae. Paine's point is this: selectively pluck out one species, a starfish, and you start a chain of unforeseen events that affect an entire tidal ecosystem.

He dubbed such critical critters as starfish "keystone species," and the concept has become a standard part of ecological science. It is fine to worry about whales or eagles or bears or owls or salmon, but all rely on lower creatures that must also be sustained.

That is why the spotted-owl battle turned from a struggle to save the owl to saving the entire old-growth forest ecosystem in the Pacific Northwest: The owl was part of a web of organisms being ripped apart by clear-cut logging.

Tatoosh is full of stories like The Glacier. When fur traders trapped out the sea otter in the 18th and 19th centuries, they eliminated one of the primary predators of sea urchins. The urchins in turn exploded in numbers and increased their feeding on kelp forests, which began to collapse on the U.S. West Coast. Kelp, in turn, serves as a nursery for all kinds of fish and sea creatures, as well as a bulkhead that cushions the worst wave damage to beaches and headlands. Now the otter has been reintroduced from Alaska - a colony was established at Washington's Cape Alava - and urchin numbers are being checked, allowing kelp to make a comeback.

Another example is eagles. When DDT was banned and hunting stopped, the majestic birds began multiplying, just as their food supply in the Strait of Juan de Fuca started a decline from the drop in fish runs and fishing carcasses they fed on.

As a result, a study by the UW's Julia Parrish and Karen Jensen has shown, the eagles are preying more aggressively on other birds, so terrorizing the murres on Tatoosh Island that they have driven them off nesting habitat on the brink of the cliffs and made reproduction difficult among survivors.

Paine also suspects that as fishermen turn from disappearing salmon to other species to fill their nets, they are robbing chinook salmon of the young fish they feed on, compounding the difficulty of nourishing salmon runs back to health.

Familiar in Seattle is the explosion of crows drawn by human garbage, and which feed on the eggs of other birds. When peregrine falcons began attacking crows at Tatoosh Island, the result was so beneficial to other birds that the number of oyster-catcher birds doubled.

A `frightening view of nature'

Paine's lesson is not that nature must be untouched, or that sustaining the natural world means it will be stable.

"One shouldn't be concerned about variation," he said. "It's a variable natural world. Ours is a changing, dynamic, frightening view of nature."

Each winter, waves and the battering driftwood they carry hammer out patches of new bare rock, scouring away the mussels and barnacles and seaweed. The pattern looks a bit like forest clear-cuts from the air, and the patches set off a land rush of competing creatures trying to reclaim empty space. These disturbances are as necessary to the cycle of tidal life, he said, as wildfire is to Yellowstone National Park.

It takes about seven years, Paine said, for the patches to be completely recolonized. Here, he points, is an area with a die-back resulting from a deep freeze in 1989. There, a shelf of barnacles killed by an oily blob from the Tenyo Maru oil spill in 1991.

Easily as impressive as death is tenacious life. Paine heaves over a rock and reveals clinging sea urchins, their spines having slowly carved hollows in the rock to give them space to live. Urchins can live to be 60 years old, scientists guess, barnacles 20, and sea anemones seem virtually immortal. A British Museum specimen lived 75 years. When researchers tattooed 300 anemones on Tatoosh and then checked back 2 1/2 years later, 299 could still be found, indicating an annual mortality rate of virtually zero. The 300th may have simply wandered off (sea anemones can crawl) instead of died.

Canadian scientists have recently found giant clams the size of footballs on the continental shelf off Oregon. These clams, they estimate, are so slow-growing they could be a thousand years old.

The scientists on Tatoosh try to make sense of this complexity by two means. One is to simply record what is there; Paine's record going back to 1970 will be immensely valuable if there is a future oil spill in Washington. He could tell what life existed before oil took its toll.

The second is to tinker with the environment and observe changes. Paine's team has dotted the rocks with stainless-steel anchors to mark seaweed and mussel boundaries or to anchor cages isolating organisms from each other. Oven-cleaner helps to scour patches clean of organisms to see how fast they recolonize. Sea anemones hate to crawl across artificial turf and so strips of the stuff can temporarily pin an individual in place for extended observation. Clay flower pots are glued upside down and filled with nutrients to see the impact of fertilization.

Most experiments are so small and unobtrusive they have to be pointed out, and it is this manipulation that has made Tatoosh a useful laboratory, but Paine said some colleagues prefer simple observation of undisturbed nature.

We are the wild card

After more than a quarter-century on Tatoosh Island, Paine's view from these experiments is as complex as life itself: It is natural to see species rise and fall, nature as a whole rebounds, but removal of key species can be catastrophic to existing animals and plants.

Well, so what?

So we're the biggest keystone species of all, Paine explained as he looked out over the ocean. Our desire to keep our fondest places exactly as they are is probably doomed to failure, he said. Climate, fire, sedimentation, erosion, sea-level change and the struggle between species are just a few of the factors that keep nature in flux. In fact, Tatoosh's tidal ecosystem needs disruption to give competing species each its chance.

But we are the wild card. We can accomplish as much disruption in a day or a year or a decade as nature might match in a century or millennium. We can disrupt entirely a coast or watershed that a natural disturbance would only nick. We can develop a taste for a handful of species and unknowingly unbalance an entire ecosystem. And finally, the system can snap.

At least that's what the hermit crabs scuttling in cemented Tupperware on Tatoosh Island would seem to be telling us.

Is anybody listening? Paine sighed.

"My definition of ecology is a 300-year-old advertising campaign by scientists that has fallen on deaf ears," he said.

Copyright (c) 1996 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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