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Keywords:

  • extinction;
  • historical ecology;
  • over-exploitation;
  • shifting baseline syndrome

Abstract

Eyewitness accounts written by early travellers to ‘the new worlds’ provide valuable insights into how seascapes once looked. Although this kind of information has been widely used to chart human impacts on terrestrial ecosystems, it has been greatly overlooked in the marine realm. Here we present a synthesis of 16th to 19th century travellers’ descriptions of the Gulf of California and its marine wildlife. The diaries written by conquerors, pirates, missionaries and naturalists described a place in which whales were ‘innumerable,’ turtles were ‘covering the sea’ and large fish were so abundant that they could be taken by hand. Beds of pearl oysters that are described had disappeared by 1940 and only historical documents reveal the existence of large, widespread, deep pearl oyster reefs, whose ecology and past functions we know little about. Disqualifying the testimonies of early visitors to a region as ‘anecdotal’ is dangerous; it may lead to setting inappropriate management targets that could lead to the extinction of species that are rare today but were once much more abundant. Moreover, it represents unfair historical judgement on the work of early natural historians, scholars and scientists. We suggest that the review and analytical synthesis of reports made by early travellers should become part of the pre-requisites for deciding how to manage marine ecosystems today.