Ocean Watch

By Susan Scott

Monday, August 25, 1997

Giving back to the ocean
can be hard but rewarding

Every once in a while, I get an urge to take things I have collected from the ocean back to where they belong. My inspiration for this comes from a local fisherman who once, years ago, shouted at a public hearing, "Take, take, take! That's all we ever do in the ocean. When are we going to start giving back?"

No time like the present, I thought, moved by the man's speech. And so I found myself standing at the shoreline near my home, tossing my seashells, one by one, into the water. Oh, it was hard. But I kept throwing, imagining the joy a hermit crab might experience when finding one of my lovely shells. It would surely be the home of its dreams.

Last week, I gave something living back to the sea.

About five years ago, I received a unique and thoughtful birthday present: a jar containing eight half-inch-long red shrimp from one of the anchialine ponds on the Big Island.

Anchialine shrimp are true treasures of Hawaii, unique in both lifestyle and habitat. The word anchialine (pronounced AN-key-a-lin) means near the sea in Greek and refers to brackish pools close to the ocean. Although the pools have no direct connection with the ocean, enough seepage occurs through the porous ground that water in the ponds rises and falls with the tides.

Tiny shrimp took advantage of this unique ecosystem and, over the eons, evolved into nine or 10 species.

One fascinating feature of these shrimp is their longevity: They can live for 10 years on very little food. Hawaii researchers have kept sealed jars of these shrimp on their desks for years without feeding them. The animals live on algae and bacteria that grow naturally in the brackish water.

Such a cloistered lifestyle may seem odd, but it allows the animals to survive volcanic eruptions. When their ponds fill with lava, the shrimp retreat to underground water pockets, sometimes living there for years with no light and little food. When new ponds form at the surface, the shrimp emerge and start colonies.

Because of this remarkable adaptability, NASA is interested in our shrimp. Perhaps someday these subterranean creatures will boldly go where no shrimp has gone before.

Although Hawaii's anchialine shrimp are not listed as endangered and are not protected by federal or state laws, they are in danger of extinction. Not only are their ponds dwindling due to coastal development, but people dump alien fish in the ponds, supposedly to eat mosquito larvae. The fish also eat the shrimp.

Ironically, anchialine shrimp too eat mosquito larvae, making the fish additions pointless.

When I first learned about these special shrimp, I couldn't wait to get to the Big Island to see them. An easy place to visit them is at the Waikoloa Resort. When the building of this resort destroyed some of the natural ponds, developers made artificial ones. True to the shrimps' nature, they moved right in and began reproducing like mad. Both the natural and artificial ponds there are jam packed.

Years ago, I raved about these shrimp so much that my partner went to a pond, scooped up eight of the beauties and presented them to me as a gift.

What a treat these darting red creatures have been on my countertop these past years. Some died, of course, but since the loss was only about one per year, we figured the deaths were natural. When the population recently got down to two, I decided it was time to let them go.

Last week, we returned to the Big Island and walked to the pond, jar in hand. I opened the lid and dipped the edge into the water. As our shrimp swam free, we said goodbye.

Giving back to the ocean can be hard, but it can also be rewarding. Tossing those shells and lowering that jar will always remain vivid memories.

Marine science writer Susan Scott's Ocean Watch column
appears Mondays in the Star-Bulletin. Contact her at honu@aloha.net.

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