Findings of Global Project on the History of Marine Animal Populations Led by TCD Academic Presented at International Conference

Posted on: 27 May 2009

International marine historians and scientists are gathering this week at a Census of Marine Life conference in Vancouver to discuss the findings of a global project History of Marine Animal Populations (HMAP), headed up by Trinity College Dublin’s Professor Poul Holm, Academic Director of TCD’s arts and humanities research institute, the Long Room Hub.

Before oil hunters in the early 1800s harpooned whales, the ocean around New Zealand teemed with about 27,000 southern right whales – roughly 30 times as many as today – according to one of several  reconstructions of ocean life from the past in  to be presented at  the conference.

At about the same time, researchers say large pods of blue whales and orcas, blue sharks and thresher sharks darkened the waters off Cornwall, England, herds of harbour porpoise pursued fish upriver, and dolphins regularly played in waters inshore.

TCD’s Professor Poul Holm, a maritime historian and global chair of the History of Marine Animal Populations (HMAP) project says:  “We now know that the distribution and abundance of marine animal populations change dramatically over time. Climate and humanity forces changes and while few marine species have gone extinct, entire marine ecosystems may have been depleted beyond recovery. Understanding historical patterns of resource exploitation and identifying what has actually been lost in the habitat is essential to develop and implement recovery plans for depleted marine ecosystem”.

The HMAP project, which forms part of Census of Marine Life, an international science research programme, was co-designed in 1999 by Professor Holm and he has been the lead  principal investigator throughout the project, which will end in December 2010. 

Commenting on the significance of the project, Professor Holm says: “The development of marine environmental history in no more than ten years has been phenomenal. We now know the basic outline of the origins of commercial fisheries in Northern Europe, we have a good sense of developments in many regions around the globe during the last 500 years ranging from the Caribbean to the White Sea, from the American Pacific to New Zealand. However, the demands of the global fish market is accelerating the impact of human extractions from the oceans, especially in the deep seas and in tropical waters”.
“Marine environmental historians are challenged not only to understand the interaction of humans and the sea but also to put their knowledge at the service of society. Marine conservation agencies from Australia to South Africa and all around the North Atlantic have formally recognised the importance to future management of the sea of information on historical baselines of past ecosystems and human impact. It is of specific Irish interest that the International Council for the Exploration of the Seas of which Ireland is a member has recognised the HMAP approach as a key methodology to inform conservation agencies of past biological biodiversity, distribution, and abundance for future conservation goals.”

Commenting specifically on future Irish studies, Professor Holm says: “Unfortunately, we have not so far undertaken any specific Irish studies. However, I am keen to develop the field here and would welcome students who have an interest in Irish environmental history. Famously, Irish waters were rich in resources for foreign fishermen while Irish fisheries developed quite late. The particular problems of foreign and native fisheries need to be studied both for their neglected historical interest and to establish conservation targets based on an understanding of what the ocean used to look like.”

Oceans Past II Conference, 2009
International scientists at the second Oceans Past conference (, organised by the Census of Marine Life will present findings such as:
– Timelines over which giant marine life populations declined. For example,  large freshwater fish caught by Europeans started shrinking in medieval times, sending fishers to sea;

– A shift from eating locally-caught freshwater to marine fish species occurred around 1000 AD;   

– New fishing boats and equipment invented in the 1500s made it possible to venture from coastal to deep sea fishing; 

– In the early to mid 1800s, years of overfishing followed by extreme weather collapsed a European herring fishery.  Then, the jellyfish that herring had preyed upon flourished, seriously altering the food web.

The conference themes include:
– Historical patterns of change in marine ecosystems;
– The social and economic drivers and consequences of the changes;
– Historical examples of ecosystem recoveries and prospects for future recoveries; and
– The Sea Ahead: the Future of Marine Ecosystems