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Learning from the history of marine use to shape future ocean policies

For 13 years scientists from around the world have been conducting research on the history of marine resource exploitation in the “History of Marine Animal Populations” project (HMAP).

Recently, Science Europe presented an award to the large-scale project in recognition of its high social impact. Kathleen Schwerdtner Máñez, social scientist at the ZMT, is a member of the group managing the project.

With the award, Science Europe, an association of European Research Performing Organisations (RPO) and Research Funding Organisations (RFO), highlights the particular significance of the research carried out in the HMAP project. Marine ecological history provides important insights that can shape decision-making in coastal and fisheries management, as is the case with the work of the Leibniz Center for Tropic Marine Ecology (ZMT) in the Indonesian Spermonde Archipelago. There Schwerdtner Máñez and her colleagues are investigating how the use of marine resources has changed over the centuries and has also altered the ecological balance of the coral reefs in Spermonde.

Historical sources provide researchers with important information about the progressive overexploitation of the archipelago which has taken place since the 18th century. In rapid succession the local fishermen and traders exploited different resources. “The reasons: a new place where another catch could be made, a new technique promising to bring more profit and finally a change to another species when international market demand shifted or the previous species targeted by the fishermen ultimately disappeared,” said Schwerdtner Máñez, describing the patterns of action. In her opinion, a key problem is that the intervals keep getting shorter until the respective species is ultimately decimated.

For many centuries sea cucumbers were the most sought-after catch, because they are considered to be an aphrodisiac in Southeast Asia. Towards the end of the 20th century they were succeeded by the humphead wrasse, which since then has virtually disappeared from large parts of the archipelago. Then the focus shifted to reef bass. Like the wrasse they are especially popular in Hong Kong’s gourmet restaurants. Since 2012 moray eels have been a lucrative catch, even though they are actually considered unfit for consumption. The serpentine fish accumulate a toxin via the food chain and are therefore usually inedible, but they are used in traditional Chinese medicine. Since the late 1990s certain species of coral, such as the tree-like branched bamboo coral, have been collected and sold for the aquarium and jewellery trade.

“There are two main factors that have driven this rapid exploitation,” Schwerdtner Máñez explained. With technical developments such as compressor diving, fishermen could penetrate into deeper reef areas. Since World War II explosives have been increasingly used in fisheries. However, a patron system, which is widespread in this region as well as in many Asian and African countries, is also a key factor. The fishermen work for middlemen known as patrons that provide them with a kind of social security. The patrons are well connected, open up the international markets for the fishermen and provide them with the necessary financial resources and equipment for fishing.

“The historical perspective opens our eyes to underlying patterns of action,” Schwerdtner Máñez said. “This may result in specific recommendations for the coastal management.” Accordingly, the use of resources should be regulated – and in advance. Until now regulations have only been adopted – if at all – when it was almost too late for a specific species.

As member of the project management team of the HMAP, the Bremen researcher wants to set new accents in historical ecological research. “For example, until now little was known about the different roles men and women play in the history of the use of marine resources,” she said. “We researchers tend to speak to the heads of the household, the fishermen who go to sea.” The women often fish and gather in other ecological niches and with other techniques. They may also contribute significantly to the overexploitation of marine resources. Here Schwerdtner Máñez sees a clear need for further research.

More information:

Dr. Kathleen Schwerdtner Máñez
Leibniz Center for Tropical Marine Ecology
Tel: 0421 / 23800 – 82

Dr. Susanne Eickhoff | idw
Further information:

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