Fishing for answers about oceans past, present and future

21 June 2012

Professor Poul Holm
Professor Poul Holm: "What we're looking at is how did the oceans look 100, 200, 300 years ago."

A hundred years of restaurant menus from New York City, old ships' logs, and tax records are just some of the innovative sources being used to recreate an accurate historical picture of the world's oceans and marine life.

This detective work is part of a global research initiative called the History of Marine Animal Populations (HMAP). Involving some 100 interdisciplinary researchers, the project's aim is to understand how the diversity, distribution and abundance of marine life in the world's oceans changes over the long term.

In a SYdney Ideas lecture this week the chair of the HMAP, Professor Poul Holm, will present key findings to date from the teams of historians, archaeologists and ecologists involved.

Until recently the management of fisheries worldwide has typically relied on reference information spanning no more than 20 to 40 years, says Professor Holm, the Trinity Long Room Hub Professor of Humanities at Trinity College Dublin.

"What we're looking at is how did the oceans look 100, 200, 300 years ago," he says.

Sadly the decline of marine life is much larger than generally thought a few years ago, he reports. But the historical picture the HMAP project is recreating shows there is reason for optimism.

"If we stand back, if we fish less and reduce other stressors, the long term prediction, based on historical experience, is that the ocean will rebound, stocks will grow and we will have a much more plentiful sea and ultimately have plentiful sustainable fisheries.

"Although we have wiped out many of the commercial fish stocks, it's not that the fish have gone in a biological sense. They're still out there. They're waiting for their chance. The oceans are deep and there are many places to hide. So there's a huge potential for us to rebuild fish stocks in the future.

"History shows that a moratorium on fisheries works. This is well illustrated by the rich harvests of fishermen after World War II and the rebuilding of North Sea herring after the decline of the 1970s."

Professor Holm warns, however, that one hurdle to regenerating the oceans is politicians' short-term thinking: "'short-termism' is what handed us a banking crisis, and it has already caused an ocean crisis. Perhaps now is a time when the longer-term view will have a chance."

Poul Holm is Trinity Long Room Hub Professor of Humanities at Trinity College Dublin and President of the Consortium of European Humanities Institutes and Centres. He has published on fisheries history and marine environmental history and coastal communities and culture.

Event details

What: Fishing Matters: historical perspectives on the impacts of fisheries on ecosystems and human societies, a Sydney Ideas event, co-presented with the Environmental Humanities Group in the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences

When: 6pm, Thursday 21 June

Where: Foyer, New Law Building, Camperdown Campus. See map and directions

Cost: This event is free and open to all, with no ticket or booking required. Seating is unreserved and entry is on a first come, first served basis.

Contact: Kath Kenny

Phone: 0478 303 173, 02 9351 1584

Email: 3c035b5a1758341956113a003e160016377e22071b481506