Coral reef conservation has a surprisingly long history

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We tend to think of reef conservation and the sustainable harvesting of fish and seafood as modern ideas, but researchers in Hawaii have discovered evidence of reef conservation on the islands 600 years ago.

One of the greatest challenges in marine conservation today is the preservation of coral reefs and their inhabitants. Human activity has led to an alarming decline in their general health and diversity and worldwide there are many programmes in place to try and prevent and reverse the impacts of man on these remarkable but fragile ecosystems.

Now a team of researchers from Stanford University have discovered evidence of sustainable practices amongst the Hawaiian population as far back as the 15th century.

The team, led by social scientist John Kittinger, examined historical human impacts on the reefs by studying the waste found at community middens at 17 sites around the islands while at the same time reviewing fisheries data, ecological studies and historical accounts of reef and fishing related cultural practices.

There is some debate as to when the first sea faring Polynesians colonised the islands but the middens show that from around 1250AD there is no doubt that any settlers were quick to take advantage of the wealth of marine life found in the surrounding seas.

Fish bones dug from the middens show the impact of human activity with the remains of typical species getting smaller, a clear pointer to over-fishing where larger specimens are collected first.

However by the 1400's the population was less dependent on the reefs and were raising pigs and dogs for meat while at the same time creating ponds near the sea to raise fish for consumption.

As society stabilised laws and traditions controlled fishing further, restricting reef fishing, banning the consumption of sharks which were thought to be the animal form of ancestors and reserving turtle meat for chiefs only.

As a result fish, turtle, monk seal and other mobile sea life populations recovered by 20% and reef ecosystems by 10%. Sadly the arrival of Europeans in 1778 brought about a swift end to this careful stewardship and most Hawaiian reefs have been in decline ever since.

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