By Hyejoo Ro, Aquatic and Fishery Sciences UNDERGRADUATE STUDENT

It’s easy to develop the mentality that events in the past have already happened, so you move on and don’t dwell on them. People have changed aquatic ecosystems for a long time, and sometimes not for the better (Jackson et al. 2001).

Many researchers are finding that the state of our ecosystems are bleak. Society has dramatically increased carbon emissions over the past half century. With increased carbon emissions comes increasing temperatures, and ocean acidification. We are also facing dramatically increased global population size – there are more people to feed, which contributes to global overfishing issues.

This seem like a lot of issues with no solutions. But many people know the quote from Walt Disney’s The Lion King:

“The past can hurt. But the way I see it you can either run from it or learn from it”

– Rafiki, The Lion King, Walt Disney

Learning from history

Dr. Loren McClenachan is a renowned historical ecologist. She answers questions like how abundance and distribution of many marine species have changed over the centuries. One of Dr. McClenachan’s studies creatively used 18th century British nautical charts to determine the historical range of corals in the Florida Keys (McClenachan et al. 2017). Through these charts, Dr. McClenachan was able to assess large-scale changes of coral coverage in the Florida Keys. She discovered an overall loss of 52% of corals over the past 240 years. Another one of Dr. McClenachan’s studies used historical photos of trophy fishes in the Florida Keys to show that there had been a shift in the size of “trophy fishes” to smaller individuals and species.

UW students learning from the past

Apart from past journal records, preserved fish specimens in museums are likely the only record available for estimating parasite abundance in the past.

-Hiromi Katagiri, UW SAFS, Undergraduate Capstone Researcher

Preserved black belly eelpout infected with blood worm from UW Ichthyology Collection. Photo courtesy Hiromi Katagiri.

Dr. Chelsea Wood is also involved in historical ecology of parasite assemblages. Under Dr. Wood’s mentorship, undergraduate researchers Hiromi Katagiri and Ellie Davis are making use of the University of Washington’s Ichthyology collection to look into the prevalence of blood worms in different fish species from Puget Sound. They hope to discover how the prevalence of blood worms have changed in space and time. To do this, Ellie, has been externally examining preserved museum specimens of rock sole from 1930-2016 for the blood worm, Clavinema mariae with the goal of discovering how the abundance of this nematode has changed over time. She has also been examining frozen English sole specimens from around Puget Sound for this parasite to create a disease map of the worm. Although marine parasites can affect the health and quality of the fish for human consumption, their abundances are not commonly studied. The parasite’s distribution or hosts may change, but there are no baseline data to compare the past to the present.

Preserved rock sole infected with blood worms from Nisqually Bay 1987. Photo courtesy Ellie Davis.

Having more information about the spatial and temporal scale of [this blood worm] is important because parasite burden can have extreme impacts on commercial fisheries and the overall health of the environment, making this study important for both economic and conservation purposes.

-Ellie Davis, UW SAFS, Undergraduate Capstone researcher

New technology to answer old questions

Microcomputed tomography (micro-CT) scan image of Burke Museum specimen Allocareproctus tanix. Image courtesy of Abby von Hagel.

Other systematic research utilizing the UW Burke Museum’s fish collection include Abby von Hagel’s work. Abby is part of the #scanallfish effort started by Dr. Adam Summers. As part of her research, Abby uses new technology including a Microcomputed tomography (micro-CT) scanner to analyze specimens by generating high-resolution three-dimensional (3D) data visualizations. She hopes to understand how bone structure varies in rare Bering Sea snailfish specimens.

New technology is drastically expanding the types of questions we can explore with specimens from the Burke Museum Fish Collection.

-Abby von Hagel, UW Neurobiology, Undergraduate researcher

Harbor seal skull from Slater Museum collection. Photo courtesy Megan Feddern.

A relatively new methodology employed by UW School of Aquatic and Fishery Sciences graduate student Megan Feddern, is compound specific stable isotope analyses on harbor seal skulls from museum collections including the Burke, Slater, and others. Megan aims to understand historic basal ecosystem productivity along with the trophic position of top predators, such as harbor seals in the Puget Sound, with the expectation that this information can help reveal historic ecosystem dynamics to better inform management.

When considering how ecosystems will respond to climate change, it is important to have a baseline to understand how ecosystems have responded to climate variability in the past, to create accurate predictions of how they may respond to these unprecedented changes in the future.

-Megan Feddern, UW SAFS, Graduate Student

Building baselines for future solutions

Methods of historical ecology resemble time travel. Researchers are able to harness the framework of established resources (thanks to many museum collections) to gain new information. Novel information from established resources can provide insight and perspective to inform stronger management of aquatic ecosystems in the future. Whether that information comes from understanding the changes of species assemblages or fundamental changes within an organism, this establishes a baseline knowledge to build upon.


References & Further Readings

Jackson, et al. “Historical Overfishing and the Recent Collapse of Coastal Ecosystems.” Science (Washington), vol. 293, no. 5530, 2001, pp. 629–638.

McCLENACHAN, Loren. “Documenting Loss of Large Trophy Fish from the Florida Keys with Historical Photographs.” Conservation Biology, vol. 23, no. 3, 2009, pp. 636–643.

McClenachan, Loren, et al. “From Archives to Conservation: Why Historical Data Are Needed to Set Baselines for Marine Animals and Ecosystems.” Conservation Letters, vol. 5, no. 5, 2012, pp. 349–359.

Mcclenachan, Loren, et al. “Ghost Reefs: Nautical Charts Document Large Spatial Scale of Coral Reef Loss over 240 Years.” Science Advances, vol. 3, no. 9, 2017, p. e1603155.