Scientists: Collapse of coastal ecosystems tied to past overfishing

GAINESVILLE, Fla. --- Dying coral reefs, dwindling shellfish populations, shrinking seagrass beds and other collapses of the worlds coastal ecosystems are often blamed on pollution or global warming.

But in a paper set to appear Friday (7/27) in the journal Science, 16 scientists and academicians from around the world argue that these trends were set into motion by a much older human transgression: overfishing.

Beginning long before Columbus and accelerating rapidly in Colonial and modern times, people have radically overfished marine mammals, large fishes and shellfish, according to the paper, whose co-authors include Karen Bjorndal, a zoology professor and director of the Archie Carr Center for Sea Turtle Research at the University of Florida. The reduction of these animals to a fraction of their historical abundance has caused ecological damage that remained hidden until recent decades, when other circumstances triggered its full effects, the scientists say.

What were finding is a number of the crises that our marine ecosystems are facing today can be traced back thousands of years in some cases, and hundreds of years in others, to when human beings first began affecting these ecosystems, Bjorndal says.

The paper is an unusual example of scientific literature, and not just because of the number and diversity of authors, who range from ecologists to paleobiologists and hail from institutions including the University of Chicago, Australia National University and the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute.

In contrast to the narrow focus of many scientific papers, it discusses coastal ecosystems around the globe, hopscotching from the Chesapeake Bay to the Caribbean to Australias coastal waters. And it steps outside the bounds of pure ecological science, drawing on a broad array of scientific literature, historical accounts and archaeological evidence of aboriginal fishing practices.

Among the interes

Contact: Karen Bjorndal
University of Florida

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