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A Wilderness Ecosystem in Collapse

The Aleutian Islands are remote and, at first glance, unspoiled. But what happened to the mammals?


ADAK ISLAND, Alaska — There are few places on Earth that have changed so much, so fast as the narrow arc of islands where the Pacific Ocean greets the Bering Sea.

The Aleutian Islands are in the middle of nowhere. No tourists, no cruise ships, no chartered fishing trips, no quaint country inns. On a quiet day, when the turbulent seas and legendary winds are still, you can hear a killer whale breathe.

But look and listen more closely. Something is missing.

Where are the sea lions, fat and happy, napping on the rocks and barking at their pups? And the furry sea otters crunching on urchins? What became of the ample king crabs and shrimp, and the schools of silvery smelt? And where are the lush undersea forests of kelp that provided food and refuge for fish?

As sudden and savage as an Arctic storm, some mysterious phenomenon has transformed this spectacular archipelago of more than 1,200 miles in just a handful of years.

A vast subarctic ecosystem is collapsing. No one knows why.

The sudden changes in the Gulf of Alaska and the Bering Sea have inspired an eclectic team of men and women to try to solve an extraordinary environmental whodunit. Virtually alone in a forbidding wilderness closer to Siberia than to Anchorage, they have been divebombed by eagles, bitten by otters, buffeted by 70-mph winds, rattled by earthquakes and lost in storms. And each year they return for more, drawn back by the Aleutian paradox. If this rugged, remote ecosystem is collapsing, can any place on Earth be safe?

Jim Estes, a marine ecologist at the U.S. Geological Survey in Santa Cruz, has traveled to the Aleutians for the last 30 summers, studying what once was the world's largest and healthiest population of sea otters. Three summers ago Estes realized that the otters had virtually disappeared while he watched.

There were no bodies to dissect, few clues to decipher. The otters aren't starving. They aren't sick. They have simply vanished.

Throughout the Gulf of Alaska and probably the Bering Sea, too, the balance of prey and predator has been upended, a transformation so extreme it's called a "regime shift." Waters once brimming with seals, otters and king crab are now dominated by sharks, pollock and urchins. Virtually no creature remains untouched.

"You just can't grasp how different things were 10 years ago," said Estes during a recent expedition. "No one has ever seen a decline of this magnitude in such a short period of time over such a large geographic area."

Piece by piece, over the last three years, scientists have started to solve the puzzle. Clues point toward something--almost imperceptible--that happened in the ocean in 1977. But the answers are more disturbing than satisfying, more elusive than conclusive. It seems the ocean's chain of life is actually a fragile silken web. If you remove a strand, the whole thing unravels. And it may never be whole again.

An Unprecedented Population Loss

Tim Tinker is swathed in a bulky orange survival suit, hanging from the bow of a 25-foot boat as it hugs the rugged shore of Adak Island.

A brutal storm has just ended, leaving August skies crisp and clear. Adak's mountains, set against a blue satin sky and fog as white as cotton balls, are draped with a luxuriant fleece blanket of moss. The green shines so brightly it seems as if it could glow in the dark. Overhead, a bald eagle soars, and black and white puffins skim across the surface of the sea, their orange webbed feet splashing the 40-degree water.

From his perch on the bow, Tinker lifts his binoculars, training them on rocky reefs. For the ninth straight year, he is counting the Aleutians' sea otters for an annual survey. He scans a reef, lowers his binoculars and turns toward the stern of the boat, holding up a single finger clad in ragged wool gloves.

Iris Faraklas, a research assistant, dutifully makes a notation: One otter.

An hour into the survey, Tinker, a marine mammal biologist at Santa Cruz, and his colleague Brian Hatfield have counted only five otters and two harbor seals.

"Back in the old days, in the early '90s, we probably would have seen 500 otters by now," said Estes, as he pilots the boat around submerged rocks and into foggy inlets. "Now we go miles and miles without seeing even one."

This day, they will survey 200 miles of coast, finding only 171 adult otters and 29 pups.

If sea otters dream, they are surely dreaming about a place like Adak Island, in the middle of the Aleutian chain. There's plenty of food. Plenty of sanctuary. But only one otter per mile.

In the 1980s, as many as 100,000 otters inhabited the islands. Today, only about 6,000 remain, according to aerial surveys. Between 1992 and 2000, the population dropped by 70%, a rate of decline that researchers say is unprecedented for any mammal population in the world.

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