Ancient civilizations reveal ways to manage fisheries for sustainability

Mar 23, 2012
Historical fisheries in Florida were characterized by boom and bust, with serial depletions of highly valuable species for export markets, according to researchers at the Center for Ocean Solutions and Colby College. Credit: National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration/Department of Commerce

In the search for sustainability of the ocean's fisheries, solutions can be found in a surprising place: the ancient past.

In a study published on March 23 in the journal Fish and Fisheries, a team of reconstructed fisheries yields over seven centuries of human habitation in Hawaii and the Florida Keys, the largest in the United States, and evaluated the management strategies associated with periods of sustainability. The results surprised them.

"Before European contact, were catching fish at rates that far exceed what reefs currently provide society," said John "Jack" N. Kittinger, co-author and an early career fellow at the Center for Ocean Solutions at Stanford University. "These results show us that fisheries can be both highly productive and sustainable, if they're managed effectively." In contrast, historical fisheries in Florida were characterized by boom and bust, with serial depletions of highly valuable species for export markets. Today many species that were the target of 19th and early 20th century fisheries in Florida - including , sawfish, conch and groupers - have severely reduced populations or are in .

"Seven hundred years of history clearly demonstrate that management matters," said Loren McClenachan, co-author and assistant professor of environmental studies at Colby College. "Ancient Hawaiian societies used sophisticated tools similar to innovative used today, like and restrictions on harvest of like sharks." The difference, the authors explained, was in the way fisheries governance systems were structured. Regulations were developed locally with the buy-in of community members, but they were also effectively enforced with methods that now would be considered draconian. "Today, no management system comes close to achieving this balance, and as a result, resource depletion and collapse is common," said McClenachan.

The authors were able to characterize historical catch rates in Florida and Hawaii through an extensive review of archival sources, including species-specific catch records from the 1800s and archaeological reconstructions of human population densities and per-capita fish consumption back to the 1300s. Such information is relatively rare in coral reef areas. They then characterized management regimes associated with periods of high sustained yields using a variety of sources, including published work of Native Hawaiian scholars. This work revealed that sustainable fisheries existed during periods in which regulations were strict and socially enforced in ways that were often class and gender based. For example, many vulnerable species—like sharks and marine turtles—were reserved exclusively for high priests and chiefs.

Ancient Hawaiian societies depended entirely on local resources and needed creative ways to avoid resource collapse. For example, fishpond aquaculture was used to sequester nutrients and reduce pollution on reefs. In contrast, much of today's aquaculture requires large inputs of wild caught fish and antibiotics, often resulting in increased pollution. "Ancient Hawaiian society effectively practiced what we now call ecosystem-based management, which is something that modern society often struggles to achieve," says McClenachan. "Incorporating some of these ancient techniques into today's policy may be the key to sustaining our fisheries."

The authors of the study, entitled "Multicentury trends and the sustainability of coral reef fisheries in Hawai'i and Florida," point to the U.S. National Ocean Policy as an example of emerging attempts to manage ocean ecosystems more holistically, and local co-management as a modern way of including community members in designing effective fishing regulations. However, the authors caution that effective enforcement needs to go hand in hand with the development of local governance. "The ancient Hawaiians punished transgressors with corporal punishment," observed Kittinger. "Clearly, we don't recommend this, but it's easy to see there's room to tighten up today's enforcement efforts."

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User comments : 4

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Ophelia
5 / 5 (2) Mar 23, 2012
The 1300s is now considered to be "ancient" history?
Jimee
not rated yet Mar 23, 2012
"Ancient history" in human perception.
Julian Alien
1 / 5 (1) Mar 24, 2012
McClenachan is an enviromentalist hack.We already have Draconian laws in most States.The problem is loss of habitat and pollution.This 15 year net ban has ended up with no real explosion of species,just the loss of small quaint fishing villages and the people who depend on the sea for a living.In its place we have mini mansions,seawalls,and condos.Now our seafood comes from countries with no regulations and is old.Sea life needs marshes,mangroves,and clean fresh water inlets to begin life.
ForFreeMinds
1 / 5 (1) Mar 24, 2012
Rather than an economic commons, fisheries would be better off with property rights regarding who can fish for what where. Then property owners would find ways to catch and prosecute those stealing their fish. But what government officials would go for this? Property rights remove power from government bureaucrats.

Consider Alaska's limited (by law) fishing season. As a result, boats sit idle, but then go out during the allowed time, regardless of the weather, safety, and take all they can.

Given ownership of fishing rights, the owner will find his best return when he maintains the fishery the best.

In an economic commons, no one benefits from cost of maintaining the commons.