Human Impacts on Ancient Marine Ecosystems: A Global Perspective

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

10
Historical Ecology of the North Sea Basin
AN ARCHAEOLOGICAL PERSPECTIVE
AND SOME PROBLEMS OF METHODOLOGY

Geoff Bailey, James Barrett, Oliver Craig, and Nicky Milner

THE NORTH SEA BASIN IS one of the most fertile marine environments in Europe. Its relatively shallow seabed, cool-temperate climate, and winter storms ensure rapid recycling of nutrients, while the presence of land masses on three sides and large rivers draining extensive catchments, such as the Thames, the Rhine, and the Elbe, bring additional inputs of nutrients from land. The geographical limits of the Basin are defined to the west by the coastline of Britain, to the east by the coastlines of southern Norway, western Sweden, and Denmark, and to the south by the coastlines of northern France, the Low Countries, and northwest Germany. To the north, there is a broad opening to the North Atlantic, and to the coastlines of northern Norway and Iceland. To the south there is a much narrower opening through the English Channel to the Bay of Biscay and the southern Atlantic, and to the east a narrow connection between Denmark and Sweden to the progressively more brackish waters of the Baltic (Figure 10.1). With populous countries on every side, the North Sea Basin is also vulnerable to the pressure of human demand on its marine resources. In the past century, and especially in recent decades, it has become a byword for overexploitation of its fish stocks. Historical records suggest that the productivity and abundance of cod (Gadus morhua) and herring (Clupea harengus) were much greater than today, but the accuracy or wider relevance of these records is unclear (Jackson et al. 2001). Certainly the present-day stocks of some major commercial fish are under serious threat, and a complete ban on fishing for cod has recently been advocated to avoid regional extinction. Given the acute impact of recent human activities on marine ecosystems, knowledge of the frequency and scale of past impacts on marine life is not only historically informative but is also crucial for assessing the current crisis facing ocean fisheries.

The rim of the North Sea Basin has witnessed continuous occupation throughout the last 10,000 years with a succession of communities and cultures who have variously interacted around its perimeter or across an east-west axis through colonization, trade,

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