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Going Down in History
Peace of the Gods

Features May 2007: Volume 4, Number 2

Going Down in History


Marine ecologists often wish they could go back and study marine environments before they were altered by human interactions. Without a time machine at their disposal, scientists are now employing the next best thing.

A new field known as historical marine ecology includes tapping into historical photographs, maps, news accounts, library records, and other archives to fill in knowledge gaps of the time before formal scientific field surveys were conducted.

Loren McClenachan, ’10, a graduate student at Scripps Institution of Oceanography at UC San Diego, recently came across what she describes as a goldmine of photographic data at the Monroe County Library in Key West, Florida. Hundreds of archived photographs snapped over five decades depict sportfishers posed next to some 1,275 “trophy fish” catches of the day.

By analyzing the photos, McClenachan calculated a stark 88 percent decline in the estimated weight of large predatory fish imaged in black-and-white 1950s photos compared to the modern diminutive catches. Additionally, the photographs revealed that the average length of sharks declined by more than 50 percent in 50 years.

“These results provide evidence of major changes over the last half century,” says McClenachan, “and a window into an earlier, less disturbed fish community.”

Contributors to Making Waves: Mario C. Aguilera, ’89, Christine Clark, ’06, Dolores Davies, Caitlin Denham, Raymond Hardie, Kim McDonald

Photography: Munro County Library, Loren McClenahan, Mandeville Special Collections and Scripps Institute of Oceanography