An Island Microcosm Transformed

Crocker Snow, Jr. '57

Even before he became a Middlesex student in 1952, Crocker Snow, Jr. ’57 was already a regular visitor to Muskeget, the windswept, uninhabited island of 250 acres that his family co-owns with nearby Nantucket. On April 4, 2017, Crocker returned to campus to talk about the significant changes he has observed in this small ecosystem over the past six decades.

Given his career path, Crocker noted that he never expected to come to Middlesex to talk about science. A Harvard graduate, he served in the U.S. Navy before earning an M.A. at Tufts’ Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, where he was the first Edward R. Murrow Fellow in 1968; he later served as a director of the Edward R. Murrow Center for Public Diplomacy at the Fletcher School. Crocker has worked at Newsweek, WGBH public radio, and the Boston Globe. From 1978 to 2001, he was president of The WorldPaper, an international publication he founded. His first self-published book, Muskeget: Raw, Restless, Relentless Island, is in its third printing; his second book, The Mouse that Owns an Island: Tiny Vole, Tiny Island, Inconvenient Truths, is about to go to press.

Having first seen Muskeget as a nine-year-old, Crocker remembers it well as a treeless, “wild” place with seven structures on it, all lacking electricity. Terns and herring gulls dominated the landscape, and fish were plentiful. Since then, however, rising sea levels have eroded the beaches, steadily diminishing the island’s size and necessitating the relocation of its one remaining structure. Also destroying the habitat are the gray seals that found a favorable home there in the early 1960s. Once thought to be near extinction and therefore safeguarded by the 1972 Marine Mammal Protection Act, the gray seals have proliferated on Muskeget, where the island’s shoals further protect them from their single natural predator: the great white shark.

“Think what it means to other species on the island,” Crocker said of the 10,000 seals overrunning the site. Birds that once numbered in the thousands have been reduced to a few hundred. Fish populations have been decimated, as each adult seal consumes 15 to 20 pounds a day. Tiny voles native to the island are trampled by the seals – as are the sand dunes and sea grass, further accelerating erosion.

In short, Muskeget is a singular case study of the effects of climate change and the unintended consequences of policies meant to correct the balance of nature. “When does protection become excessive?” Crocker asked. As someone who sees his role as one of stewardship, rather than ownership, he hopes that some natural deterrent will help restore balance to the island that has been his passion since childhood.

Crocker Snow, Jr. '57

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