Since Pre-Columbian times, humans have exploited Jamaican marine ecosystems with significant consequences for flora and fauna. This study focuses on the history of reef fish exploitation in Jamaica, from first human occupation to the present day, to determine how past fishing activities contributed to subsequent declines in the coral reef ecosystem. The pattern of declining reef fish populations was nonlinear. Reef fish first declined in prehistoric times but then potentially recovered, following genocide of the native human population. Reduced fishing pressure lasted until the mid-19th century. At that time, depletion of reef fish populations again occurred with a precipitous decline from the 1850s to the 1940s. The final shift from relatively abundant to overfished marine fauna corresponded to subtle changes in fish trap design as well as development of recreational fishing. Government subsidies throughout the second half of the 20th century exacerbated the declines. This analysis shows that local artisanal fisheries with relatively low levels of effort and seemingly subtle shifts in technology can significantly impact the coral reef ecosystem and that declines occurred decades to centuries before modern ecological studies began. This research shows how historical analysis can be a powerful tool to minimize shifted baselines and establish realistic targets for recovery and sustainable management of marine ecosystems.