Human Impacts on Ancient Marine Ecosystems: A Global Perspective

By Torben C. Rick; Jon M. Erlandson | Go to book overview

8
Possible Prehistoric Fishing Effects
on Coastal Marine Food Webs
in the Gulf of Maine

Bruce J. Bourque, Beverly J. Johnson, and Robert S. Steneck

THE GULF OF MAINE is one of the world’s most productive marine ecosystems. Its coastal codfish stocks attracted European colonists, including the Pilgrims at Plymouth, Massachusetts, on the shores of the then appropriately named Cape Cod. Today, however, Atlantic cod (Gadus morhua) and virtually all large-bodied fishes are rare and “ecologically extinct” (sensu Estes et al. 1989) from coastal zones of the Gulf of Maine. The decline of cod and other groundfishes is widely believed to be the result of overfishing (Jackson et al. 2001). Further, because cod were the dominant predator in Gulf of Maine waters (Steneck and Carlton 2001) their functional absence affects the entire ecosystem. Declines in apex predators release prey species at lower trophic levels, so mesopredators and herbivores often increase in abundance, becoming new fisheries targets (Jackson et al. 2001; Steneck and Sala 2005; Steneck et al. 2004). This process is known as “fishing down marine food webs” (Pauly et al. 1998).

Conventional wisdom assumes that fish stocks remained “pristine” until targeted by commercial fishing fleets to supply foreign markets, thus initiating a historical process of fishing down the marine food web (e.g., Jackson et al. 2001; Lotze et al. 2006). Thus, in the western North Atlantic a pristine state—one unaffected by human activity—is assumed to have persisted until European contact (Jackson et al. 2001; Lotze and Milewski 2004). Archaeological studies in the Aleutians (Simenstad et al. 1978), California (Erlandson et al. 2004, 2005), and the Caribbean (Wing and Wing 2001), however, have presented compelling evidence for prehistoric declines of apex predators due to fishing. If such prehistoric effects were widespread, then perhaps we will have to reset our timeline for when coastal ecosystems first departed from their pristine baseline (Erlandson and Fitzpatrick 2006; see also Erlandson and Rick, this volume).

In this chapter, we present archaeological and isotope data from a coastal site in Maine that suggests localized fishing down of nearshore coastal food webs may have begun thousands of years before European colonization. Specifically, we report on changes in the relative abundance of faunal remains in the well-preserved and best-studied midden in coastal Maine, the Turner Farm site in Penobscot Bay. We also use stable nitrogen and

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