Historical overfishing and the recent collapse of coastal ecosystems

Science. 2001 Jul 27;293(5530):629-37. doi: 10.1126/science.1059199.


Ecological extinction caused by overfishing precedes all other pervasive human disturbance to coastal ecosystems, including pollution, degradation of water quality, and anthropogenic climate change. Historical abundances of large consumer species were fantastically large in comparison with recent observations. Paleoecological, archaeological, and historical data show that time lags of decades to centuries occurred between the onset of overfishing and consequent changes in ecological communities, because unfished species of similar trophic level assumed the ecological roles of overfished species until they too were overfished or died of epidemic diseases related to overcrowding. Retrospective data not only help to clarify underlying causes and rates of ecological change, but they also demonstrate achievable goals for restoration and management of coastal ecosystems that could not even be contemplated based on the limited perspective of recent observations alone.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, Non-P.H.S.
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Archaeology
  • Bacteria
  • Cnidaria
  • Conservation of Natural Resources
  • Ecosystem*
  • Eutrophication
  • Fishes*
  • Geologic Sediments
  • Humans
  • Marine Biology*
  • Seaweed
  • Shellfish
  • Time Factors