As an ecologist, I have always contemplated the question of “Is there an ecosystem that is untouched by mankind?”
And before I started to do research on Hog Island, VA, I would have answered that question with a resounding “there has to be some nook, cranny, or remote area that remains unaffected.” Now I’m not convinced.
Hog Island, VA is a barrier island off the Atlantic coast of the Delmarva Peninsula that has not been inhabited by humans for quite some time now. So, you might expect that if you visited such a place that you wouldn’t find much evidence of mankind. However, this notion would be wrong.
Map of the Eastern Shore of Virginia
Aerial photo of Hog Island looking north
As soon as you step foot on this island, it is obvious that as humans we impact all ecosystems, inhabited or not. How this particular ecosystem is impacted by humans is though what I call “sea trash,” which is essentially litter that washes up onto the island.
The amount of sea trash that has washed up over the years on Hog Island is astounding. Anywhere you walk on the island, besides the active beach zone, is pretty much sprinkled with litter. There are your typical plastic bottles from water to Gatorade, there are also your miscellaneously colored glass bottles which most likely previously housed some form of hooch, but there are also things that you might not expect.
The first thing that shocked me were the amount of lightbulbs. THEY ARE EVERYWHERE. From the long four footers that produce the horrible fluorescent lighting in office buildings, to the typical 60 watt bulbs that people use to use in their homes before everyone shifted to the eco-friendly CFL bulbs (you know, the ones that look like a vanilla ice-cream cone swirl), they are all there. It is nothing to be walking through the island interior, which is composed of both grassland and shrub communities, and hear a distinct crunch underfoot knowing good and well that you just accidentally stepped on a lightbulb. The only thing you can do is keep on trekking and try to avoid the next one.
Grassland and shrubland communities on Hog Island
The other surprising set of items that seem to wash up fairly regularly are car maintenance items. Air filters are particularly common, as well as oil filters, car oil bottles and antifreeze bottles. Even uninhabited islands can’t seem to escape industrialized, automotive driven America.
Since I visit Hog Island fairly frequently, I have become accustom to the ends and outs of variety of sea trash that washes up, but every now and then you get some particularly interesting items such as old thick televisions half buried in sand, Jumbo LEGO building blocks (yes, even on a remote island your feet are not safe from these monsters), fully inflated beach balls, deflated balloons of all sorts, from Happy Birthday! to Get Well Soon, and buckets galore! Nice buckets too, I’ve even taken a few particularly nice ones home with me!
All of this sea trash however sheds light on another problem that people may not often think about, the cleanliness of our oceans. It is a scary thought that what I see washed up on this island is just a microscopic fraction of what is floating around out there. And with the amount of coastline the world has, it is hard to think of an ecosystem that wouldn’t be impacted by the copious amount of trash floating in our oceans. If you think about it, even Antarctica, one of the most isolated places in the world, has a coastline that could be impacted by sea trash.
This thought and my personal experience on Hog Island is what has firmly solidified my belief that no ecosystem is truly untouched by mankind.
By: April Harris