Overfishing sets the stage for other problems in marine ecosystems

sh such as cod. The average size of cod for thousands of years was about a meter long which is impressive considering the fishers used crude hooks made of deer bone with line made of deer intestines. Coastal food webs were probably dominated by large predators and many of the invertebrates such as lobsters and sea urchins may have been much less abundant than they are today, says Steneck.

By any measure the rate of change in the worlds coastal oceans is accelerating. Whereas cod were harvested by humans as a primary food for over 5,000 years and early Europeans saw cod as an inexhaustable resource, it wasn't until the last half century that cod became rare in coastal zones. Since then, increased lobster and sea urchin abundances may be the result of those former prey species living in a new predator-free world, he adds.

The article notes that a lack of historical perspective has led to erroneous conclusions about the causes of problems in marine waters. Such problems often have deep historical roots, the article says. For example, land use activities around Chesapeake Bay have been considered the primary cause of water quality problems there. However, the loss of massive oyster beds had severe consequences for water quality because oysters kept the growth of water clouding algae in check. It was the loss of oysters that made the ecosystem vulnerable, the article states.

In other examples, the article cites the elimination of predators such as sea otters on the West Coast and of predatory fish from the Gulf of Maine as the primary factor in the loss of kelp beds. Otters and predatory fish kept sea urchins, which eat kelp, in check. Kelp forests are important habitats that support diverse marine communities. In recent years, urchin harvesting by humans has allowed kelp to expand in some areas of the Gulf of Maine, Steneck points out.

In addition to overharvesting, disturbance of unde

Contact: Nick Houtman
University of Maine

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