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Thresholds in human exploitation of marine vertebrates

Periodic Reporting for period 2 - SeaChanges (Thresholds in human exploitation of marine vertebrates)

Reporting period: 2021-04-01 to 2023-03-31

Sustainability studies of Europe’s marine environment may have focused on geological and biological data, but they have not extensively integrated disciplines such as archaeology or the evidence this field can provide in understanding the past use of resources. The SeaChanges project involved experts in archaeology, zoology, marine ecology and conservation biology from seven leading institutions, aiming to develop an interdisciplinary training platform bridging the archaeological and biological sciences, and to support a cohort of researchers to investigate the impact of humans on key European marine species through the millennia. More widely, SeaChanges aimed to improve the understanding of marine vertebrate populations and raise awareness of human impact on such species historically.

SeaChanges objectives:
1) develop a truly interdisciplinary training platform, breaking down boundaries between archaeological & biological sciences.
2) improve understanding of the time depth of human use of and impact on key European marine species.
3) train a cohort of researchers who can communicate across disciplinary and sectoral boundaries, whose insights will drive the adoption of long-term perspectives into concepts of sustainable fishing.
4) increase cross-disciplinary and cross-sectoral awareness of the potential of long-term perspectives in marine ecology.

This was achieved via a network of 15 complementary research projects, applying diverse methods to address both historical/archaeological and ecological themes, covering all of Europe's seas, key marine species, and timescales from decades to millennia. Collectively, these projects both advanced methodologies at the interface between archaeology and marine biology, and extended our knowledge of past marine exploitation and impact: pushing back timeframes for intensive exploitation of certain species, shedding new light on the development of trade in others, and assessing long-term impacts on marine systems.
SeaChanges recruited an ambitious and enthusiastic cohort of 15 ESRs with varied backgrounds in archaeology, anthropology, and biology.

A programme of training workshops aimed to provide the ESRs with valuable skills for their research projects and future careers, while also fostering communication across the network. The Covid-19 pandemic inevitably disrupted this programme, with one workshop cancelled, two delayed, and one held online. The final programme included: kick-off meeting (York); archaeological sampling (Groningen, online); data analysis/management (Oslo); communication with stakeholders and media (Copenhagen); grant writing (Vigo). Several online research meetings, training sessions, and social events were added to keep the network together during the pandemic. A closing conference was held in Ravenna, combining talks from ESRs with a range of visiting speakers with closely aligned research.

SeaChanges research was composed of 15 largely independent ESR projects, but considerable potential for synergies between them. Despite the disruption, the ESRs quickly established a cohesive network and progressed well, producing some impressive results both individually and in collaboration, and disseminating these via a wide range of presentations and publications.

Key research findings and associated publications are noted in the following section, but additional highlights include:

A peer-reviewed opinion piece by three ESRs evisiting the concept of ecological baselines that emerged from a collaborative writing exercise during the kick-off meeting (Atmore, Aiken, Furni 2021,
A publically available database of zooarchaeological records identified as Atlantic bluefin tuna, with associated resources (Andrews, nd.,
New software for genomic analysis, BAMscorer, which allows use of extremely poor-quality genomic sequences, mitigating waste in destructive analysis and opening new avenues for research (Ferrari, Atmore et al. 2021,
Several projects assessed human impact on past marine vertebrate populations through palaeogenetic analysis. Two studies point to limited impacts on population structure of North Atlantic cod (Martínez-García et al. 2021) and Atlantic bluefin tuna (Andrews et al. 2021), despite centuries of heavy exploitation, while a third suggests serial depletion of Baltic herring populations due to fishing pressure over the past millennium (Atmore et al. 2022). Such results are significant for conservation genetics of these species. Forthcoming studies shed light on the genetic impact of baleen whale hunting (Furni et al. in review), the development of walrus population structure (Ruiz-Puerta et al. in review), and the past presence of sturgeons in the Danube (Zampirolo et al. in prep).

Some projects extended proteomic methods for identification of animal remains. This was strikingly successful for both flatfish (Dierickx et al. 2022) and groupers (Winter et al. 2023a), with unique markers defined for multiple closely related species. Given the low-cost and minimally invasive nature of this method, the results are invaluable for future research in any context where species-level identification is required, including archaeology but also field ecology and – notably – the food industry (Dierickx et al. 2023).

Other projects advanced the potential of stable isotopic analyses, whether showing that life-history signals are retained in tuna vertebrae (Andrews et al. 2023,); revealing the otherwise invisible exploitation of sea trout (Quinlan et al. in prep.); showing remarkable continuity in sea turtle feeding ecology through time (de Kock et al. in review); or the converse in tuna (Andrews et al. in review).

Alongside archaeological methods and written sources, SeaChanges researchers used these molecular approaches to extend understanding of past marine resource exploitation and its impacts in different times and places. Their projects have pushed the origins of Baltic herring trade back to the Viking Age (Atmore et al. 2022) and revealed new details in the history of cod trade (Martínez-García et al. 2022); shown that exploitation of North Sea marine flatfish began centuries earlier than previously known (Dierickx et al. in prep); extended perspectives on intensive exploitation of Mediterranean tuna (Andrews et al. 2022b) and Black Sea marine mammals (Aiken et al. in review); and documented three centuries of persecution of small cetaceans in Iberian waters (Petitguyot et al. in review).

Some findings have clear implications for restoration targets – e.g. showing that white grouper, exploitated for four millennia, once grew to 30cm longer than it does today (Winter et al. 2023a; 2023b) – but all contribute to the wider narrative that human impacts on marine species have a long and complex history. The consequent relevance of long-term datasets to contemporary management and target-setting was advocated by ESRs through presentations to e.g. ICES and publication in relevant outlets. There have also been entirely unexpected contributions, e.g. CT scans of scrimshaw (Corto) revealed previously undetected cracking, resulting in new recommendations for curatorial practice.
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