Marine Historical Ecology in Conservation: Applying the Past to Manage for the Future

Marine Historical Ecology in Conservation: Applying the Past to Manage for the Future

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ISBN-13: 9780520959606
Publisher: University of California Press
Publication date: 03/25/2015
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 312
File size: 20 MB
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About the Author

John (Jack) N. Kittinger, PhD, is Director of Conservation International's Hawaii program and was previously a Social Science Fellow with the Center for Ocean Solutions at Stanford University.
Loren McClenachan, PhD, is the Elizabeth and Lee Ainslie Assistant Professor of Environmental Studies at Colby College.

Keryn B. Gedan, PhD, is Lecturer in the Sustainable Development and Conservation Biology Graduate Program at the University of Maryland.

Louise K. Blight, PhD, is a marine science specialist at World Wildlife Fund in Vancouver, BC, Canada, and the owner of Procellaria Research and Consulting.

Read an Excerpt

Marine Historical Ecology in Conservation

Applying the Past to Manage for the Future

By John N. Kittinger, Loren McClenachan, Keryn B. Gedan, Louise K. Blight


Copyright © 2015 The Regents of the University of California
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-520-95960-6


Managing Human Legacies in a Changing Sea

An Introduction


In 1938, Howard Granville Sharpe was working on his small ranch, 13 miles south of Carmel on the Big Sur coast in California, when he spied something strange in the kelp beds off shore. A longtime native of the area, Mr. Sharpe was no stranger to the Big Sur coast, yet he and his ranch hands were perplexed to find a group of sleek animals lazing around the kelp beds off shore of Bixby Creek. Two days later, he drove north to Stanford University's Hopkins Marine Station, where he was politely rebuff ed after reporting to the marine scientists there that he had discovered a species of sea otter (Enhydra lutris). Entreaties to the local press and scientists at the California Fish and Game Commission were met with similar amusement and skepticism.

A few days later, Fish and Game officials agreed to travel south to Sharpe's Rainbow Headlands ranch, where they were amazed to find the first family of sea otters observed in nearly a century in California. Professor Harold Heath from the Hopkins Marine Station later remarked, "Had you reported dinosaurs or ichthyosaurs running down your canyon, swimming about, we couldn't have been more utterly dumbfounded" (Sharpe 1989).

With this observation, a new chapter of natural history was written on the California coast. Sea otters had occasionally been observed since the late 1800s but were widely believed to be regionally extinct after 200 years of hunting for the lucrative fur industry. Within a few decades of their rediscovery, however, otter populations spread northward up the coast, repopulating their previous range.

The recovery of otters was not met with universal enthusiasm. In an early case of shifted baselines, sea otters were viewed as a new arrival by coastal California residents whose perspectives of the coast were formed over a shorter period of time than the otters' history of decline and recovery (see Box 2.1 by Jim Estes, in chapter 2). Urchin and abalone fishermen viewed the animals as competitors, which led to conflicts between otter-friendly coastal residents and those who viewed the species as a threat to their livelihood (Cicin-Sain et al. 1982). However, their return also heralded the regrowth of kelp forests, as dense aggregations of kelp-eating urchins fed the otters' voracious appetites. Protection and active management fostered growth of both otter populations and kelp forests, ecosystems that today support a diversity of species and provide social benefits in the form of fisheries and tourism. Indeed, the iconic kelp forests now common along northern California shores can be almost entirely attributed to the recovery of otters (Estes and Palmisano 1974).

This story of the return of the sea otter mirrors other emerging stories of recovery in marine environments around the globe (Figure 1.1). In the Pacific Ocean, egg and feather hunters reduced the short-tailed albatross (Phoebastria albatrus) to near extinction by the early twentieth century, with an estimated 5 million birds taken from one colony alone. As with sea otters in California, it was thought that the species had been eradicated until a small breeding colony of about 10 birds was discovered on the Japanese island of Torishima in 1951. Because albatrosses spend the first several years of their life at sea, these few individuals had escaped the final depredations of the feather hunters and formed the core of a population that continues to grow to this day. Other examples of recovery include the striped bass (Morone saxatilis) along the east coast of the United States, which demonstrates that the effects of overfishing can be reversed. In some cases, human actions have aided recovery; for example, coastal marshes, which are fundamental to estuarine ecosystems and were badly abused in centuries past, are now the focus of intensive restoration efforts, revealing the value that society has begun to place on the important functions and benefits these systems convey. Across the Pacific, the renaissance of traditional management systems based on historical practices has increased the biomass of target reef fish populations and provided social benefits to the communities that rely on these fisheries resources.

If there are universal lessons to be learned in these recovery stories, they are that the seeds of recovery and resilience can be found in surprising places and that we have choices about the future of the oceans. The lessons embedded in these historical recoveries also empower our generation of conservation scientists and ocean enthusiasts with the means (and perhaps the responsibility) to create an alternative future—one with healthy ocean ecosystems and resilient coastal communities. As Peter Sale writes in Box 1.1, nature is indifferent to the path we choose to take, but people care deeply about the state of nature; the abundance of marine species and the services provided by intact ecosystems greatly affect our quality of life and, indeed, our long-term survival.

These examples also teach us that history matters. There have been great losses in the global oceans, but as societies change the way they interact with marine ecosystems, so too do we change the environmental outcomes of these interactions. Species that were former targets of hunters and fishers have gained protection. Habitats that were once dredged and filled have become recognized for their role in coastal defense and fisheries production. Historical information sources that were once ignored have gained new life as data sources to understand baselines and make well-informed conservation decisions. Active management of species and habitats has certainly not always guaranteed recovery, but increasing attention to the historical dynamics of decline and recovery continues to reveal how we can use the past to better manage for the future.

In this volume, we define marine historical ecology broadly as the study of past human-environmental interactions in coastal and marine ecosystems, and the ecological and social outcomes associated with these interactions. Marine historical ecology developed out of the growing realization that humans have altered marine ecosystems over very long time scales, and that historical data often are needed to understand the true magnitude of human-induced changes. People working in marine historical ecology (including the authors who contributed to this book) come from a variety of fields, including marine biology, fisheries science, archaeology, geography, history, and more. These researchers also use information from diverse sources. Shell middens, oral histories, climate records, log books, restaurant menus, and handwritten letters in dusty museum basements all have had stories to tell about human-ocean relationships. Some marine historical studies stretch back a few decades, while others span millennia or longer (Box 1.2). All research in this area has a common goal of establishing a deeper understanding of how human societies have affected marine ecosystems through time.

While ecologists and biologists were instrumental in first describing many of the long-term anthropogenic changes to marine ecosystems, marine historical ecology has become increasingly more interdisciplinary in scope, and it will require an even greater collaborative effort to apply these findings to conservation and management. The interdisciplinary nature of this field has attracted numerous researchers and fostered cross-disciplinary collaborations, leading to more integrative approaches. For example, in the Gulf of Maine, fisheries scientists worked together with historians to estimate cod abundances in the 1850s (Rosenberg et al. 2005). In Hawaii, geographers, ecologists, and archaeologists collaborated to reconstruct the history of coral reef ecosystems and identify key social drivers associated with these changes (Kittinger et al. 2011). And a panel at the 2011 International Marine Conservation Congress brought together marine biologists, fisheries scientists, archaeologists, geographers, and others to explore ways in which history can help shape the management of marine ecosystems, launching this collaboration and edited volume. These multidisciplinary collaborations are increasingly common because they embody the potential for innovative ways of understanding long-term change, but also because interdisciplinary analyses can reframe these problems in new ways and offer new solutions to restore degraded ocean ecosystems and rebuild depleted resources.

Fueled by recognition of innovative scholarship and increased engagement by researchers and institutions, the past few decades have seen tremendous growth in this field. Marine historical ecology research now spans a growing variety of disciplines and has been published in the highest-impact scientific journals. In the past decade, scholars have also developed major initiatives in historical ecology that have significantly advanced the field, including the History of Marine Animal Populations (HMAP) project in the Census of Marine Life, the Integrated History and Future of People on Earth (IHOPE) project, and a series of working groups organized by Jeremy Jackson and others at the National Center for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis in California. Large-scale regional initiatives have also been developed, such as the San Francisco Estuary Institute's historical ecology project and the Mannahatta project in New York. This growth in the field demonstrates broad appeal, due in part to recognition that despite the limitations of historical data, discounting the long-term perspectives they provide can lead to inappropriate conservation actions and unintended negative consequences for ocean environments and coastal communities.

Increased interest in marine historical ecology in the research community corresponds with increased attention from the general public. Findings from marine historical ecology projects continue to gain a strong following at national and global scales. Nonfiction works in marine historical ecology have become popular books—for example, Jared Diamond's Collapse, Mark Kurlansky's Cod, Callum Roberts's The Unnatural History of the Sea, and James MacKinnon's The Once and Future World)—and environmental reporting and journalism has turned its attention to historical topics (Weiss et al. 2006). Marine education and outreach programs have also started including historical content, such as the Sant Ocean Hall at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C., which features an exhibit on long-term changes to marine fish populations, and the U.S. National Marine Sanctuaries Program, which has brought historical ecology into its programmatic goals. Collectively, these examples point to a broad public interest in the ocean's past and what it can tell us about current challenges in environmental sustainability.


Marine historical ecology is increasingly oriented toward real-world applications, and researchers and practitioners are exploring tangible policy, management, and conservation strategies based on knowledge of the past. At the same time, marine conservation programs and practitioners worldwide struggle to meet the immense challenges of safeguarding biological diversity and maintaining the ecosystem services upon which society depends.

In this book, we use four parts to focus on four key challenges that confront marine conservation: (1) recovering endangered species, (2) conserving fisheries, (3) restoring ecosystems, and (4) engaging the public. These four distinct areas represent specific challenges and opportunities, where marine historical ecology is distinctly poised to help address the implementation gap—or the distance between conservation science and policy actions and desired social and environmental outcomes. By providing real-world examples of applied approaches, as well as options for potential use and application, each of these sections advances concepts and tools that can be implemented in management and policy. Taken together, the sections offer a blueprint for using marine historical ecology to confront the challenges of ocean conservation in a rapidly changing world.

Recovering Endangered Species

Endangered species protection and recovery has always been a central part of modern efforts to conserve and manage nature, in terms of public perception, science, and on-the-ground action. Similarly, estimating historical baselines for endangered species has long been a focus of marine historical ecology. These eff orts have demonstrated that human exploitation has reduced the population abundance of many large marine animals over long time scales and has compromised the role of top predators and keystone species in ocean ecosystems. Some species, such as the great auk (Pinguinus impennis) and Steller's sea cow (Hydromalis gigas), are now gone forever, while others, such as the northern elephant seal (Mirounga angustirostris), have dramatically recovered from near extinction. The fate of some species, such as certain whales, still hangs in the balance. In this section, authors examine ways in which historical ecological research can contribute to modern efforts to recover marine species, many of which have endured centuries of exploitation. These authors go beyond documenting decline and show how historical reconstructions can help set realistic recovery targets, highlighting actions that have aided species in need of protection, or even helped turn endangered species back from the brink of extinction.

Conserving Fisheries

Fisheries worldwide face critical challenges in sustainability, and marine historical ecology has played an important role in defining the extent of changes in fish populations globally. Daniel Pauly's now famous concept of "shifting baselines" was first conceived in the context of fisheries, and since that time considerable historical evidence has helped define the current status of, and trends in, fisheries. Fisheries sustainability, however, means moving beyond quantifying impacts and scales of loss and toward developing a portfolio of potential solutions. In this section, authors advance novel ways to apply historical data to the challenge of managing fisheries and describe a series of cases where these nonconventional datasets and approaches are resulting in real-world successes. For example, coastal and island communities are integrating historically based management practices into place-based resource stewardship eff orts, preserving fish populations and ensuring ecological benefits from marine ecosystems. Additionally, stock assessment practices, which are difficult in data-poor fisheries contexts across the globe, are being modified to include historical data, providing more accurate baselines of fish populations and historically based recovery targets. These examples and others in this section point to a broad range of applied roles for marine historical ecology in fisheries conservation and management.

Restoring Ecosystems

Restoring ecosystems to a healthy and resilient state is a fundamental goal of marine conservation, and marine historical ecology has played an important role in helping scholars and practitioners understand the nature of healthy ecosystems as they existed in the past. Authors in this section show us how historical information on the distribution and condition of habitats, as well as the historical production of social benefits from these systems (known as ecosystem services), can guide modern restoration efforts. For example, historical reconstructions can illuminate past ecosystem states and current population trends, highlighting the key drivers or processes (such as predation) that may be acted on to achieve positive change. Historical studies can also provide environmental baselines against which to measure the effectiveness of conservation actions. Finally, this section also examines how marine historical ecology can reveal the dynamic nature of marine ecosystems and ecosystem responses to past eras of environmental change (especially in studies over evolutionary and geologic timescales; Box 1.2). Such efforts are increasingly relevant to restoration efforts striving to protect ecosystem integrity and resilience in the face of a globally changing environment.


Excerpted from Marine Historical Ecology in Conservation by John N. Kittinger, Loren McClenachan, Keryn B. Gedan, Louise K. Blight. Copyright © 2015 The Regents of the University of California. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

Chapter Contributors
Viewpoint Contributors

Foreword (Daniel Pauly)


1. Managing Human Legacies in a Changing Sea: An Introduction (John N. Kittinger, Louise K. Blight, Keryn B. Gedan, and Loren McClenachan)

PART I. Recovering Endangered Species (Lead Section Editor: Louise K. Blight)
2. What Recovery of Exploited Marine Animals Tells Us about Management and Conservation (Heike K. Lotze)
3. Natural or Anthropogenic? Novel Community Reassembly after Historical Overharvest of Pacific Coast Pinnipeds (Jon M. Erlandson, Todd J. Braje, Robert L. DeLong, and Torben C. Rick)
4. Using Disparate Datasets to Reconstruct Historical Baselines of Animal Populations (Francesco Ferretti, Larry B. Crowder, and Fiorenza Micheli)

PART II. Conserving Fisheries (Lead Section Editor: John N. Kittinger)
5. Improving Fisheries Assessments Using Historical Data: Stock Status and Catch Limits (Alan M. Friedlander, Joshua Nowlis, and Haruko Koike)
6. Understanding Fisheries through Historical Reconstructions: Implications for Fishery Management and Policy (Dalal Al-Abdulrazzak, Dirk Zeller, and Daniel Pauly)
7. Back to the Future: Integrating Customary Practices and Institutions into Comanagement of Small-scale Fisheries (John N. Kittinger, Joshua E. Cinner, Shankar Aswani, and Alan T. White)

PART III. Restoring Ecosystems (Lead Section Editor: Keryn B. Gedan)
8. Historical Information for Ecological Restoration in Estuaries and Coastal Ecosystems (Keryn B. Gedan, Denise L. Breitburg, Robin M. Grossinger, and Torben C. Rick)
9. Estimates of Historical Ecosystem Service Provision Can Guide Restoration Efforts (Philine S. E. zu Ermgassen, Mark D. Spalding, and Robert D. Brumbaugh)
10. Incorporating Historical Perspectives into Systematic Marine Conservation Planning (Natalie C. Ban, John N. Kittinger, John M. Pandolfi, Robert L. Pressey, Ruth H. Thurstan, Matthew J. Lybolt, and Simon Hart)

PART IV. Engaging the Public (Lead Section Editor: Loren McClenachan)
11. Engaging Public Interest in the Ocean of the Past: The Promise of New Media (Catherine Marzin, Sian Evans, and Karen Alexander)
12. Choice without Memory: Uncovering the Narrative Potential of Historical Ecology (J. B. MacKinnon)


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