Historical coral reef declines featured in this week's Science

No coral reef system in the world can be considered pristine, concludes an exhaustive historical analysis of human exploitation of reef ecosystems in the August 15 issue of the journal Science. The hunting of big turtles, fish, manatees and crocodiles began a process of reef decline exacerbated in the modern era by continued overfishing and global warming.

Coral reef research evolved after the invention of SCUBA, only about 50 years ago. But humans have fished highly productive and biodiverse coral reefs for thousands of years.

John Pandolfi, paleoecologist at the Smithsonians National Museum of Natural History and collaborators examine the question of global reef degradation beginning before human presence was felt. "These historical analyses provide us with a glimpse of what reefs were like in the absence of human influence. We have a baseline that doesn't shift, helping to put the current crises into perspective," said Pandolfi.

"In the absence of a time machine, few have the skills to illuminate our understanding of marine ecosystems with historical perspective. John makes a career of delving into the past to understand reef ecosystems," said Bruce Hatcher, professor of biology at Dalhousie University, Halifax, Nova Scotia.

The team rated groups of reef organisms (large carnivores, large herbivores, small carnivores, small herbivores, corals, suspension feeders and seagrass) from 14 reef ecosystems on a scale from pristine to extinct for each of seven different periods of human culture: prehuman, hunter-gatherer, agricultural, colonial occupation, colonial development, early modern, late modern, to present.

Richard Cooke, archaeologist at the Smithsonian Tropical Reseach Institute (STRI) in Panama and coauthor emphasizes: "Long historical records, often ignored by scientists and planners, are powerful tools for understanding the relationship between present and pristine states of ecosystems. Humans have never been

Contact: John Pandolfi
Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute

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