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By Phil Colarusso
Wednesday had been a long day in the field, and it was great to be home. It was early evening and I was processing the last seagrass sample. Seagrasses provide habitat for many organisms, so it is not unusual to find small invertebrates crawling around in our eelgrass samples.
I poured the last sample bag onto the sorting tray and separated the small rocks, shells and other material from the shoots of eelgrass. It was at this point I saw it: a small hermit crab lay motionless. It had ditched the snail shell it had been living in, which I subsequently found among a small pile of rocks. The crab was dead and I was immediately overwhelmed with guilt. Hermit crabs only leave the safety of their adopted shells, their homes, under periods of extreme stress. As I contemplated the poor crab’s fate, I wondered what extreme event it would take to make me leave the security of my home. I have lived in homes that survived hurricanes, the snow and coastal flooding of the Blizzard of 1978, and countless other events.
A sense of discomfort gnawed at me as my tired mind wandered. Our oceans are home to millions of species. Global climate change, ocean acidification and eutrophication are some of the processes making our waters inhospitable to many plants and animals that live there. Warmer water temperatures change the normal distribution of animals and plants. Shellfish, which use calcium carbonate to build shells, will find that harder and harder to do as ocean pH levels continue to become more acidic. Sensitive habitats, such as coral reefs and seagrass beds, rapidly decline as waters near shore get over-enriched with nitrogen. What happens to all the fish that depend on those habitats? What do you do when you can’t go home?
As I was putting away my scuba gear, something fell out of my fin. In the dark it looked like a small rock. I picked it up off the garage floor with the intent of throwing it into the backyard. I realized it was not a rock, but another hermit crab, still tucked snugly in its snail shell. There was but one thing to do. I hopped in the car and drove the 15 minutes back to the nearest salt water. I returned this crab back to a safe location and he scrambled away. As he wandered away, I marveled at the resiliency of life. It reaffirmed to me the importance of the work I do. Nothing is more important than that place we call home.
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About the author: Phil Colarusso is a marine biologist in the Coastal and Ocean Protection Section of EPA New England, and is an avid diver. He’s living the dream in Wenham, Massachusetts with wife JoAnn, two kids, dog and white picket fence.