Historical Baselines in Marine Ecosystem Management: An Ecoregional Approach for the Northern Caribbean

EPA Grant Number: F5E11027
Title: Historical Baselines in Marine Ecosystem Management: An Ecoregional Approach for the Northern Caribbean
Investigators: McClenachan, Loren
Institution: Scripps Institution of Oceanography
EPA Project Officer: Lee, Sonja
Project Period: September 1, 2005 through August 1, 2008
Project Amount: $107,578
RFA: STAR Graduate Fellowships (2005) RFA Text |  Recipients Lists
Research Category: Academic Fellowships


Analysis of historical data provides a missing temporal component to our scientific understanding and assessment of the current ecological condition of marine ecosystems. Understanding the history of the coral reef and seagrass ecosystems in and around the United States will allow us to more accurately assess their current ecological condition, forecast future risk, and define clear restoration goals. Furthermore, historical analyses provide information on the trophic structure of food webs in the past and potential for predator dominated ecosystems that are only observable today in a few, remnant, unfished reef ecosystems. The objective of this research is to:

  1. describe the development of fisheries in the northern Caribbean
  2. analyze the effects of historic fishing on the seagrass and coral reef ecosystems
  3. and establish historical baselines for species that represent functional elements of marine food webs.

Elements of the recent degradation of Caribbean coral reefs have included increases in rates of coral bleaching, the emergence of disease in coral reef and seagrass ecosystems, and overgrowth of corals by macroalgae. Several historical analyses have found links between this modern degradation and historic overfishing in Caribbean marine ecoystems. My research analyzes the history of fishing in the northern Caribbean to determine the long-term effects of fishing on ecosystem health. The goal of this research is to provide clear goals for restoration of coral reef and seagrass ecosystems.


I take an ecoregional, historical approach to address the issue of overfishing and ecosystem change for the northern Caribbean ecoregion. Components of ecological degradation include both biodiversity loss and reduction in fisheries yields, both of which I address for this ecoregion using data from 15 key fisheries. First, I will determine the sequence of development and/or depletion of key fisheries in each subregion (the Florida Keys, the Bahamas, northern Cuba) and the trajectories of ecological change since European arrival. Second, I will analyze the development of fisheries in the last 120 years, and assess the relative effects markets and technology on the development of fisheries. Finally, using historic records and population modeling techniques, I will determine historic population sizes of key organisms in northern Caribbean coral reef and seagrass ecosystems.

Expected Results:

In order to select baselines for restoration, we need to understand the processes that drive depletion over time, as well as the relative abundance of individuals in each species or species group before fishing. By describing the trajectory of change, and the state of the environment before fishing, historical analysis of fisheries will provide clearly defined goals for reversing the decline of marine species. I will describe the history of fisheries in the ecologically diverse and economically important northern Caribbean, providing trajectories of change and goals for restoration. The combination of the long-term perspective with the detailed ecological history for the past 120 years will have direct benefits, both for our understanding of the marine environment and for our ability to manage fisheries effectively.

Supplemental Keywords:

Caribbean, overfishing, historical ecology, coral reef ecoystems, seagrass ecoystems,, Scientific Discipline, Water, Ecosystem Protection/Environmental Exposure & Risk, Restoration, Environmental Monitoring, Ecological Risk Assessment, Ecology and Ecosystems, Aquatic Ecosystem Restoration, habitat, population dynamics, fish habitat, trophic structure, history of coral reefs and seagrass, species interactions, ecological recovery, aquatic ecosystems, ecological impact

Progress and Final Reports:

  • 2006
  • 2007
  • Final