Ecosystem simply means “ecological systems”. Ecology is the study of ecosystems. An ecosystem includes all of the living things (plants, animals and organisms) in a given area, interacting with each other, and also with their non-living environments (weather, earth, sun, soil, climate, and atmosphere).
Our Local Ecosystem
Humans have been an important part of the Island‘s ecology for 8000 years. Understanding the basics of local ecosystems and our part in them is essential to becoming a better steward.
Salish Ecosystem Overview
The Western red cedar and the Pacific salmon are the epitome of our local ecosystem. Terrestrially, the nearby mountains and western exposure to the Pacific creates one of the few places in the world where trees flourish into a large temperate rainforest. The marine ecosystem is especially rich, with the visible and well-loved Orca population but also many species deep below the surface including the Giant Pacific Octopus. Connecting the land and sea is a freshwater ecosystem of streams, which are small and seasonal on these rain-shadowed Islands. Together these form an interconnected system that we all depend on.
An Ancient Human Ecosystem
By the time the Europeans arrived in the area, The Coast Salish people had already been influencing the Island ecology for thousands of years. They modified the landscape and contributed to the dynamic flow of nutrients through the various ecosystems. Fire was an important tool. Extensive controlled burns encouraged the growth of hardwood trees and berries, facilitated human travel, and inadvertently supported salmon spawning along the coast.
The Islands are now home to a much greater population. We have increased the amount of impervious surfaces, including buildings, roads, and pavement. Development along the shoreline is extensive, with many miles armored to prevent erosion. Traditional methods of seeding the forests and shorelines are no longer used, but we now have an even larger influence on the local nutrient cycles with the fertilizers that flow through our watersheds. This is one way we influence the Salish Sea and we are studying these effects in great detail. Despite these changes our Islands are still exceptionally diverse and home to hundreds of species of fish, sea birds, and marine mammals.
What We Can Do to Plan for Resource Use in the Future
All these changes mean that we must learn more about our region and work creatively to conserve what we have and keep the natural systems healthy. As one example, raingardens are an exciting way to bring landscape and ecological diversity back to our developed land re-introducing dynamic systems that distribute nutrients and water more slowly.
© San Juan Islands Conservation District 2016