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Historical ecology with real numbers: past and present extent and biomass of an imperilled estuarine habitat

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      Historic baselines are important in developing our understanding of ecosystems in the face of rapid global change. While a number of studies have sought to determine changes in extent of exploited habitats over historic timescales, few have quantified such changes prior to late twentieth century baselines. Here, we present, to our knowledge, the first ever large-scale quantitative assessment of the extent and biomass of marine habitat-forming species over a 100-year time frame. We examined records of wild native oyster abundance in the United States from a historic, yet already exploited, baseline between 1878 and 1935 (predominantly 1885–1915), and a current baseline between 1968 and 2010 (predominantly 2000–2010). We quantified the extent of oyster grounds in 39 estuaries historically and 51 estuaries from recent times. Data from 24 estuaries allowed comparison of historic to present extent and biomass. We found evidence for a 64 per cent decline in the spatial extent of oyster habitat and an 88 per cent decline in oyster biomass over time. The difference between these two numbers illustrates that current areal extent measures may be masking significant loss of habitat through degradation.

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      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.
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        In 2002, world leaders committed, through the Convention on Biological Diversity, to achieve a significant reduction in the rate of biodiversity loss by 2010. We compiled 31 indicators to report on progress toward this target. Most indicators of the state of biodiversity (covering species' population trends, extinction risk, habitat extent and condition, and community composition) showed declines, with no significant recent reductions in rate, whereas indicators of pressures on biodiversity (including resource consumption, invasive alien species, nitrogen pollution, overexploitation, and climate change impacts) showed increases. Despite some local successes and increasing responses (including extent and biodiversity coverage of protected areas, sustainable forest management, policy responses to invasive alien species, and biodiversity-related aid), the rate of biodiversity loss does not appear to be slowing.
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          Estuarine and coastal transformation is as old as civilization yet has dramatically accelerated over the past 150 to 300 years. Reconstructed time lines, causes, and consequences of change in 12 once diverse and productive estuaries and coastal seas worldwide show similar patterns: Human impacts have depleted >90% of formerly important species, destroyed >65% of seagrass and wetland habitat, degraded water quality, and accelerated species invasions. Twentieth-century conservation efforts achieved partial recovery of upper trophic levels but have so far failed to restore former ecosystem structure and function. Our results provide detailed historical baselines and quantitative targets for ecosystem-based management and marine conservation.

            Author and article information

            [1 ]Department of Zoology, simpleUniversity of Cambridge , Cambridge CB2 3EJ, UK
            [2 ]Global Marine Team, The Nature Conservancy, Department of Zoology, simpleUniversity of Cambridge , Cambridge CB2 3EJ, UK
            [3 ]simpleWashington State Department of Fish and Wildlife, Point Whitney Shellfish Laboratory , 1000 Point Whitney Road, Brinnon, WA 98320, USA
            [4 ]Department of Biological Sciences, simpleFlorida Atlantic University, c/o Harbor Branch Oceanography Institute , 5775 Old Dixie Highway, Fort Pierce, FL 34946, USA
            [5 ]simpleUSDA, Agricultural Research Service, Hatfield Marine Science Center , 2030 SE Marine Science Drive, Newport, OR 97365, USA
            [6 ]simpleFish and Wildlife Research Institute, Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission , 100 Eighth Avenue SE, St Petersburg, FL 33701, USA
            [7 ]Marine Science Center, simpleNortheastern University , 430 Nahant Road, Nahant, MA 01908, USA
            [8 ]Department of Biological Sciences, simpleUniversity of New Hampshire , Durham, NH 03824, USA
            [9 ]simpleVirginia Institute of Marine Science, College of William and Mary , PO Box 1346, Gloucester Point, VA 23062, USA
            [10 ]simpleNOAA Restoration Center , 1315 East West Highway, Silver Spring, MD 20910, USA
            [11 ]simpleTexas Parks and Wildlife Department, Dickinson Marine Laboratory , 1502 FM 517 East, Dickinson, TX 77539, USA
            [12 ]Department of Biology, simpleUniversity of Washington , Box 351800, Seattle, WA 98195-1800, USA
            [13 ]Department of Marine Sciences, simpleUniversity of South Alabama , Dauphin Island Sea Laboratory 101 Bienville Boulevard, Dauphin Island, AL 36528, USA
            [14 ]simpleThe Nature Conservancy, 127 Industrial Drive, Big Pine Key, FL 33042, USA
            Author notes
            [* ]Author for correspondence ( philine.zuermgassen@ ).
            Proc Biol Sci
            Proc. Biol. Sci
            Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences
            The Royal Society
            7 September 2012
            13 June 2012
            13 June 2012
            : 279
            : 1742
            : 3393-3400
            This journal is © 2012 The Royal Society

            This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License, which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original work is properly cited.

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