In 1818 George Gordon Byron, in a canto entitled “Apostrophe to the Ocean”—apostrophe used in its older sense of addressing a thing personified or a person not present—reflected a popular view of his time when he wrote, “Man marks the earth with ruin, his control Stops with the shore.”

That this notion is remarkable is underscored by the fact that humans had been altering the oceans for millennia prior to 1818. That it has taken until the end of the twentieth century to gain the first serious glimpses into the temporal and spatial scales of the extent to which human activities have modified the seas is more remarkable. By the 1990s the marine science community had settled on five critical environmental issues in the oceans: fisheries operations (overfishing and its associated effects), chemical pollution and eutrophication (sometimes divided into separate categories of ocean-based versus land-based contamination sources), alterations of physical habitat (habitat destruction and fragmentation), invasions of exotic species (biological invasions), and global climate change ( National Research Council 1995;Ruckelshaus & Hays 1998).

It is thus perhaps not surprising that the 1990s—and the twentieth century—were capped by the United Nations declaring 1998 as the International Year of the Ocean, with a series of events designed to contemplate, celebrate, analyze, and address human relationship with the seas. The complex and often invisible effects of this relationship are no better reflected than in the papers in this issue of Conservation Biology, papers that examine one of the major indirect effects of fisheries operations —the profound and startling impacts of the incessant and long-term scraping of mobile fishing equipment across the world’s continental shelves. In a unique comparison, Watling and Norse (this issue) find that the destruction of the benthic communities on most of the world’s shallow coastlines is comparable to the destruction and wholesale removal of the world’s forests. That such destruction in the oceans has gone largely unnoticed—and thus unremarked in most of the scientific or popular press—is sobering and staggering. It is thus a pleasure to note the recent appearance of a book of essays on this critical subject ( Dorsey & Pederson 1998).

This and abundant other evidence reveal that the scale and magnitude of human-induced alterations to the oceans remain fundamentally unclear both to the public and to scientists. Our ability to overlook changes in the oceans is profound. A marine snail, the limpet Lottia alveus, that lived by the thousands on the blades of the eelgrass (Zostera) disappeared from Atlantic American shores almost 70 years ago ( Carlton et al. 1991), and yet it is still listed as “common” in western Atlantic Ocean seashell books. The near-demise of the huge barndoor skate (Raja laevis) in the North Atlantic Ocean went unremarked until this year ( Casey & Myers 1998), despite the existence of a detailed quantitative record and despite this loss having occurred within the memory of living biologists. The losses that preceded us may have been immense.

The events that have led us to define the major problems of the seas—and to the International Year of the Ocean—did not happen quickly and cannot be adequately contemplated, celebrated, analyzed, or addressed in one year. But a Year of the Ocean does provide us with an opportunity to reflect on the spatial and temporal scales of human alteration of the seas, and the results of this reflection make it clear that we must expand our sense of history. What were the coastal oceans like in 1899, in 1799, in 1699? No one knows: it’s embarrassing to say that on the eve of 1999 we lack even a rudimentary synthetic picture that would provide the first answers to this question. Yet such a picture would, it seems, be the sine qua non of proceeding with any modern work in marine conservation science and in experimental ecology in the sea. The clearest and most detailed accounting of the prior nature of marine communities and ecosystems, in terms of species composition and, possibly, a sense of abundance (even if the latter must be derived indirectly [ Jackson 1997]) would serve to establish necessary and minimal comparative baselines.

These baselines in turn would be the foundations against which we should analyze and interpret the structure and function of marine communities today, against which we would shape and judge restoration efforts, and against which we could more precisely build the fundamental goals of marine biological conservation in general. Failing this, we have no scholarly sense of what the coastal oceans used to look like centuries ago: we enter the system without a compelling temporal framework. But if there is no environmental clock for the ocean, how can we tell what time it is for the fate of life in the sea?

Although the scholarly records of marine life—albeit frustratingly thin and almost always qualitative—reach back in a relatively accessible manner to at least the 1500s, it is safe to say that 99% of this record remains essentially unread by modern marine ecologists and marine conservation biologists. Accounts such as those of Richard Hakluyt of the fisheries of the Gulf of St. Lawrence in the 1590s or of Gonzolo Fernandez de Oviedo y Valdes of the natural history of the West Indies in the 1530s remain unread by most marine scientists— as do thousands of similar documents, accounts, letters, journals, records, manuscripts, memoirs, treatises, travel logs, and expedition diaries since the 1500s.

Although there have been a number of tilts at the marine environmental history windmills, because the majority of the record remains unread, “historical” analyses are often viewed as dating from 150, 100, or even only 50 years ago. A welcome pulse of literature is now appearing that is beginning to further define what the removal of vast numbers of fish from the oceans might mean to the structure, function, and conservation state of ocean systems ( Levitan 1992;Parsons 1992;Dayton et al. 1998;Pauly et al. 1998), work that was foreshadowed in the 1970s and 1980s by research that speculated on the impacts on marine community structure due to the removal of Pacific sea otters, Caribbean fishes, and other organisms ( Estes et al. 1978;Hay 1984).

But even most of these attempts of necessity also take the short-term view of assessing change against data from 50 or 100 years ago. Every indication we have, however, is that by that time the oceans were already profoundly modified and that a longer-term view would gain a picture of ocean life in the 1590s, 1690s, 1790s rather than the 1890s. There are many ways to approach this longer retrospective, ranging from the analysis of historical literature to reanalyzing and reinterpreting the oldest museum collections and accessing the Holocene sedimentological and archeological records, records rarely studied by marine ecologists. That we can and must push our view of the modern history of ocean life back much farther—when and where data are available but remain untouched—is reflected in the insights of workers who have briefly explored the seventeenth century ( Jackson 1997) or even much earlier ( Houvenaghel 1987).

Without a framework of study and a deeper appreciation for marine environmental history, our sense of history often defaults to viewing the step on which we are standing as the second step of the staircase, no matter how far down the staircase we have gone. This phenomenon has been called the “shifting baseline syndrome” ( Pauly 1995;Sheppard 1995). Lest we think that fish, for example, were at peak abundances “back when”—say, 100 years ago—we need to think again. One hundred years ago both fishermen and scientists remembered “back when” as well. Dall (1892), remembering when he first visited the shores of Monterey Bay in California in the 1860s, lamented the major changes to the biota that had occurred by the 1890s.

Thus, despite the pictures that some workers have begun to paint for us, the belief that the oceans must be essentially unaltered seems to have remained intact. What has driven us to continue to treat the hundreds or thousands of examples of human alteration to the seas as exceptions to our paradigms of consistency in the ocean, rather than as fundamental inconsistencies to our views? Perhaps we hope it’s so. Perhaps we just can’t imagine that the scale of human modification of the landscape extended past the shore. Perhaps it’s because in most undergraduate and graduate programs we have historically failed to even ask students to consider what might have been centuries ago. Or perhaps it’s simpler: the oceans, unlike forests, still look like the oceans after we’ve removed their contents ( Ray 1988;Safina 1998), and even scientists are susceptible to being seduced to ignore phenomena that are out of sight.

Few works in experimental coastal marine ecology, a discipline that began in the late 1940s, offer any robust evidence that the systems studied are completely natural. That they are, however, is the implied raison d’être of the work: these are aboriginal shores, and thus an analysis of ecological relationships based on evolution can proceed—knowing that all we see is as it always was.

But have abundances of marine plants and animals changed so vastly in the past decades or centuries that the intensity of competition or predation is fundamentally altered, resulting in a different community, a community that we interpret as completely natural? Was a keystone or other engineering species that we interpret as a multimillennial member of the community in fact not present 50 or 100 years ago? Were there keystone species present 50 or 100 years ago that are now gone and that drove the evolution of interactions among species? Were what now appear to be indirect effects part of a more reticulate mesh? Were there profound punctuated impacts from seasonally abundant organisms now absent? As Hay (1984) has noted, the potential importance of missing organisms (to which we might add organisms newly added through biological invasions) “should not be overlooked when extracting evolutionary implications from ecological data.”

How poorly we know the oceans that we often cannot answer such questions and thus ignore them! Where is the large, beautiful hydroid Ectopleura americana, first and last collected on a ship’s hull in 1879 in Long Island Sound? Where are the many other species mentioned in the eighteenth or nineteenth century literature that we no longer see? Which species were carried around the world by ships for 300 years prior to 1800 that we pretend are now native everywhere they occur? How intricately woven the answers to these questions would be in shaping our view of the conservation of life in the sea, of deducing how much marine ecosystem services have changed, and even of tackling the research agenda on marine biodiversity set forth in 1995 by the National Research Council.

It is clear, too, that interpretation of the past 400 to 500 years of records, and the assessment of what we still have in the seas, will require knowledgeable systematists, whose demise was eloquently noted and foreshadowed by Hedgpeth et al. (1953). That more than half of over 550 species of seaslugs in a shallow New Guinea lagoon or a third of the worms that form part of the food chain on Georges Bank were unknown ( National Research Council, 1995) is a sobering reminder that most marine species remain undescribed. Fortunately, although the proclamations for the support of systematics to those who influence the money go largely unheeded, it is by no means too late, despite the forewarnings of 45 years ago. We simply need to make it so, propelled by moral and philosophical drivers equal to the indisputable logic of the scientific rationale.

In short, it seems overwhelmingly clear that, with logarithmically increasing concern and interest in the welfare of the seas, what we now need is a well-supported discipline of marine environmental history complemented by new and outstandingly higher levels of support for marine systematics. We now need to take the many threads of change that have been laid out, such as those in this issue of Conservation Biology, combine them with a deeper analysis of the historical literature, and weave the story of change in the sea.

Scholarly documentation of the scale of human-induced change in the seas would provide a far greater sense of urgency, and more robust responses to those who insist that it isn’t nearly as bad as “scientists” make it seem. Restoration projects that seek to restore a bay, an estuary, or a marsh to the way it looked when the proponents were young—as if this temporal target was by default the aboriginal world—seek a world that was already a barely detectable shadow of its former self, and would be better served by a more rigorous temporal target. We may be on the crest of a new ocean agenda ( Watkins 1998), but without knowing what the oceans were once like we shall be ill-prepared indeed.

Recognizing and celebrating the problems, challenges, and fate of the oceans at the hands of human endeavor through an International Year of the Ocean are, of course, welcome. We take what we can get in terms of recognition. But a Year of the Ocean is only the smallest of first steps. The oceans—and humanity—would be better served if the next 100 years were the International Century of the Oceans. Then we could shape a truly elegant apostrophe to the seas.


  1. Top of page
  2. Bibliography
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