History of Marine Animal Population

An interdisciplinary research program using historical and environmental archives to analyze marine population data before and after human impacts on the ocean became significant.

Project Leaders:
Dr. Poul Holm, Syddansk Universitet Centre for Maritim og Regional Historie, Esbjerg, Denmark

Dr. Andy Rosenberg, Dean, University of New Hampshire, College of Life Sciences and Agriculture, Durham, New Hampshire, USA

Tim Smith, NEFSC, 166 Water Street, Woods Hole, MA  02543, USA

Dr. David Starkey, Maritime Historical Studies Centre, Department of History, University of Hull, United Kingdom



The History of Marine Animal Populations (HMAP), the historical component of the Census of Marine Life (CoML), aims to improve our understanding of ecosystem dynamics, specifically with regard to long-term changes in stock abundance, the ecological impact of large-scale harvesting by man, and the role of marine resources in the historical development of human society. Since the earliest historical records, man has harvested a variety of different animals from the oceans. The effects of this activity on marine populations have been of increasing interest over the last century. While ecologists have traditionally aimed to identify the current conditions of many of the animal populations affected both directly and indirectly by harvesting, much less focus has been given to the status of affected populations in earlier times. A historical reference point of marine populations against which modern populations can be compared is necessary in order to determine how ocean ecosystems are changing with respect to human impact and even climate change. HMAP addresses this issue through multidisciplinary studies integrating Marine Ecology, History and Paleo-Ecology. This innnovative combination of research methods and analytical perspectives offers a unique approach to testing theories of the effects of both man’s activities and natural environmental changes on our living marine resources.





To achieve its goals, HMAP relies on the teamwork of ecologists, marine biologists, historians, anthropologists, archaeologists, paleo-ecologists and paleo-oceanographers. These integrated research teams analyze data from a variety of unique sources, such as colonial fisheries and monastic records, modern fisheries statistics, ship logs, tax documents, sediment cores and other environmental records, to piece together changes in specific populations throughout history. The resulting long time-series will improve our understanding of the effects of human activities and environmental factors, such as climate, currents and salinity, on marine ecosystems.

HMAP implements its global mission through a case study approach. The case studies are generally regional in scope and focus on a few species of commercial importance or habitat and biodiversity changes. Individual studies are selected on the basis that the ecosystem has been subject to fishing and that there exists sufficient historical data on catches and harvesting effort. There are currently seven case studies around the world:

  • Northwest Atlantic (Gulf of Maine, Newfoundland-Grand Banks, Greenland cod fisheries)
  • Southwest Pacific (Southeast Australian Shelf and Slope fisheries, New Zealand Shelf fisheries)
  • White and Barents Seas (Russian and Norwegian herring, salmon and cod fisheries, and Atlantic walrus hunting)
  • Norwegian, North and Baltic Seas (Multinational cod, herring and plaice fisheries)
  • Southwest African Shelf (Clupeid fisheries in a continental boundary current system)
  • Worldwide Whaling (Historical whaling in all oceans)
  • Caribbean communities (Impact of the removal of large predators)

Many HMAP projects are interpreting changes in marine populations over the past 500-2000 years, which provides researchers of current and future conditions a baseline that extends back long before the advent of modern technology, or before significant human impact on the ecosystem.

HMAP will result in a better understanding of the role of marine resources in human history and of the factors controlling marine populations. The project will help improve ecological theory, which can be applied to predict the effects of human activities on marine and aquatic ecosystems.





Three HMAP Centers for the study of Environmental History have been established at the University of Southern Denmark, the University of New Hampshire (USA) and the University of Hull (UK). These institutions act jointly as the central coordinators ofthe project, maintaining research focus, identifying and aiding the implementation of priority research projects, ensuring synchronization among the individual studies, and serving as points of contact for themedia and the public.

As this is a groundbreaking study, the Centers also devise and run educational programs to train graduate students in the multidisciplinary methods of ecological, historical and paleo-ecological research. Each summer, one of the Centers holds an intensive, two-week international summer school. The University of Southern Denmark hosted the 2001 summer school, attended by 25 students from eight countries. In 2002, the participation of 33 students from 10 countries in the University of New Hampshire’s summer school shows the growing interest in this type of work.





As it progresses, HMAP will expand its geographic scope through new case studies. Regions of particular interest and potential are Southeast Asia, the Wadden Sea and the Mediterranean. There will also be increased effort in the integration of the individual case studies with one another and with the other components of CoML. As is obligatory for all CoML projects, data collected through HMAP will form part of and be accessible through the Ocean Biogeographic Information Sys-tem (OBIS), an online global atlas for accessing, modeling and mapping marine biological data in a multidimensional geographic context. Ecological models will then be applied to test hypotheses about the ecological and anthropogenic influences on the marine communities and to reconstruct historical pictures of global marine populations.

Visit the HMAP website.
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