Millions of viewers are tuning in to Survivor-Marquesas to see which of 16 castaways will be the last to be voted off the beautiful French Polynesian island of Nuku Hiva. Yet a far more consequential contest of survival is taking place on Nuku Hiva and all of the world’s 100,000 plus islands. Will these islands themselves be voted off the planet?
Although islands conjure up images of pristine tropical paradises, they are actually among the world’s most threatened ecosystems. In the last 400 years, 50 per cent of all animal species extinctions and 90 per cent of all bird species extinctions have occurred on islands. Seventy-two percent of all the plant and animal extinctions ever recorded in the U.S. have occurred in Hawaii, a state that makes up less than two-tenths of one per cent of the nation’s land area.
Much has been written about global warming and climate change. Nowhere in the world will its consequences be felt more strongly than on islands, some of which will cease to exist if the seas continue to rise due to melting polar ice caps.
And islands are far more than the inconsequential specks of land with one palm tree pictured in a New Yorker cartoon. The 125 largest islands alone have a combined land mass equal to the size of Europe. If one includes the exclusive economic zones that cover ocean resources several miles off shore, islands have claim to one-sixth of the world’s surface harboring one half of our planet’s marine biodiversity. It surprises most people to learn that one out of every ten people on earth is an islander, so this struggle for survival has enormous consequences.
Four hundred years ago poet John Donne wrote “No man is an island.” But in a modern age of jet travel, international fishing fleets, satellite communications and far reaching ecological trends such as global warming and acid rain, he might correctly write, “No island is an island.”
The very isolation that until relatively recently protected island environments from encroachment now makes their ecosystems extremely vulnerable to damage from such outside threats as introduced species. Compounding this problem on land, the coral reefs and mangrove forests that surround most tropical islands are rapidly disappearing due to human interventions such as cyanide and dynamite fishing, sewage discharge, pesticide runoff, and dumping of waste from ocean liners.
Most of the world’s islands have small populations and on an international basis, little political clout. Non-governmental organizations such as Seacology are doing what we can to save these invaluable island environments and cultures. It will take a concerted effort by all nations to develop policies that will protect islands, the great repositories of the world’s biodiversity. Without such a new initiative our tribe will have spoken. By our inaction we will have voted precious island ecosystems and cultures-and in the case of rising sea levels, the islands themselves-off our planet.
Duane Silverstein is the executive director of Seacology, a nonprofit nongovernmental organization whose sole focus is preserving the environments and cultures of islands throughout the globe. Seacology’s website is www.seacology.org