Rescuing a Hawaiian green turtle in the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Midway Atoll National Wildlife Refuge. Photo: USFWS Pacific. Feature photo: USFWS Pacific.

In addition to causing catastrophic damage to communities and loss of human life, the March 11 earthquake and tsunami in Japan had a serious impact on marine ecosystems and wildlife across the Pacific, including in Japan, the Galápagos Islands, and Hawaii.
Japan

Marine ecosystems

Japan has 14.6% of the world’s marine species, according to The Census for Marine Life, a study conducted by the Japan Agency for Marine-Earth Science and Technology (JAMSTEC) as a part of a 10 year study that finished in 2010.

The impact of recent events on Japan’s marine wildlife has yet to be fully researched. I contacted Noriko Katakura from JAMSTEC who advised that:

Priority is now placed on rescuing people, and it may not be easy to assess the impact of the earthquake and tsunami on marine life now, as the coastal waters along the worst affected areas are not accessible for such surveys. Given the magnitude of the earthquake and tsunami…there should be impacts on fish stock and marine ecosystems, including the deep-sea chemosynthetic ecosystem. However, it would take time to assess such impacts given the disastrous situation in the quake-hit area.

Chemosynthetic ecosystems are those that survive without energy from the sun, in an area of high pressure and toxicity, and yet they teem with life. These systems were discovered in the late 1970s, and hundreds of new species were discovered.

Cindy Lee Van Dover, director of Duke University’s Marine Laboratory and Chair of the Division of Marine Science and Conservation, responded to my query about the possible impacts the earthquake may have had on these unique environments:

There are many patches of chemosynthetic activity off the coast of Japan that my colleagues in Japan have been studying over the past couple of decades. These sites form where sediment and underlying systems allow methane to percolate to the seafloor-seawater interface and where chemosynthetic microbial activity can sustain entire ecosystems. Earthquakes have the potential to reorganize flow, changing the chemical environment. Some seeps might shutdown or be buried, others may appear. Where seeps shut down, the animals will die. Where new ones form, they will gradually be recolonized if conditions are right.

The tsunami did wash some marine life inland, as reported here: the case of the baby dolphin that ended up in a rice paddy around a mile inland. The dolphin was rescued by Ryo Taira, a pet-shop owner.

Waterbirds

Black-tailed gull. Photo: Alastair Rae

Japan is a part of the East Asian-Australisian flyway – think highways for migratory birds with important stopping points for feeding and possibly nesting. It’s not yet clear whether or how much those populations will be affected by the tsunami. Nests along the coast in flooded areas are likely to have been washed away.

A report by Audobon Magazine, indicated that a series of small islands off Japan’s northeastern coast are designated as internationally important areas for birds:

Japanese cormorants had started building their nests [there] and black-tailed gulls had arrived to breed before the waves hit the rocky coasts of Sanganjima, Futagojima and other off-shore islands, says Noboru Nakamura, a Yamashina [Institute for Ornithology] researcher with division of conservation. The uninhabited islands also host rhinoceros auklet, streaked shearwater and storm-petrel colonies, where the birds have not started breeding. Adult birds were probably not killed by the tsunami but nesting sites close to sea level were likely devastated by soil erosion and debris carried by flooding seawaters, Nakamura says.

Though it’s too early to tell and it would be rash to oversimplify, the impact may not be all bad. “The Ground Beneath the Waves: Post-tsunami Impact Assessment of Wildlife and their Habitats in India” was a report published by The Wildlife Trust of India with a discussion of the assessment surveys of coastal areas after the tsunami caused by the 2004 earthquake off Sumatra. In one habitat, the sediment deposited inland actually improved some nesting areas.

Galápagos Islands

On the World Heritage List since 1978, the archipelago in the equatorial Pacific Ocean inspired Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection. Nearly 9,000 species live on or around the islands, and 97% of the islands are part of the Galápagos National Park. The islands were hit by the tsunami at high tide with a series of marine surges that were around six feet above the normal water level.

Lonesome George. Photo: putneymark

From the UNESCO World Heritage Centre: The Galápagos National Parks Service (GNPS) has been able to evaluate and assess the preliminary impact of the tsunami on the park and is working on clean-up and restoration.

Coastal buildings were flooded, including major flooding at the Marine Biology laboratory at the Charles Darwin Research Station.

The GNPS…reports that the Southwest side of San Cristobal island is among the most affected. Infrastructure to facilitate visitation here has been significantly damaged. Marine iguanas are in full nesting season at this time of year, and it is likely that some mortality will have occurred due to the flooding and resulting erosion of coastal nesting sites, but not to a significant degree.

One of the most iconic species on the islands is the Galápagos Tortoise, and a subspecies, the Pinta Tortoise, has only one surviving individual: Lonesome George, making him the world’s rarest known animal. As a precaution, he was moved to high ground before the tsunami.