Looking Back to Move Forward: How Insights From Historic Literature Can Strengthen Conservation Strategies Today
April 2020 marks the 50th anniversary of Earth Day. Organizations around the world have commemorated the occasion by participating in the global Earth Optimism movement — an initiative spearheaded by the Smithsonian to “turn the conservation conversation from doom and gloom to optimism and opportunity”.
Throughout 2020, the Biodiversity Heritage Library (BHL) and our partners are joining the movement by sharing conservation success stories from and made possible by the BHL collection. Follow our blog for conservation stories — past and present — and visit our website for more information and to explore our Earth Optimism book collection.
The world is changed.
I feel it in the water.
I feel it in the earth.
I smell it in the air.
Much that once was is lost, for none now live who remember it.
— Galadriel in Peter Jackson’s Fellowship of the Rings
That we live in a changing world should come as no surprise, yet how we measure that change can greatly impact our ability to respond to it. I am a scientist who works in the field of historical ecology — that is the use of non-traditional records to try and understand what ecosystems looked like in the past. My students Kate Henderson and Megan Hazlett and I are based out of the State University of New York College of Environmental Science and Forestry, where we look at how the state’s waters and shores have changed in order to better craft conservation goals. While we work on a variety of ecosystems, they are united by our need to understand where we come from in order to help direct where we are going.
One such example of how the past can influence the future can be found with oysters in New York City. Through accessing resources in BHL like Lockwood’s 1874 “The Natural History of the Oyster“, we get a glimpse into what oyster fishing was like in the twin cities of New York and Brooklyn (then, an independent municipality). Lockwood’s accounts seem inconceivable by today’s standards; he recounts that oysters were common in Great South Bay and even in the East River. His report regales us with how the annual value of oysters sold in New York City would be over 89 million dollars in 2019 dollars, and that the industry employed around 10,000 individuals.
Oysters were the foundation, literally and figuratively, of New York’s expansion, with the cheap food feeding its expanding population and shells forming the fill upon which lower Manhattan expanded. However, this bounty was not to last forever. In fact, one could argue that the burgeoning population that the oysters fueled helped lead to their downfall. By the 1920s, incidences of Typhoid and other diseases found in oysters growing in polluted water led the city to close its oyster beds — in effect ending a gustatory bounty that had lasted for thousands of years.
Today, many oyster restoration projects in New York focus on reestablishing these oysters beds — not for food (yet), but rather as key components to climate change resiliency. There has been a renaissance in thinking about oysters in New York, largely facilitated by the Billion Oyster Project and others. Their goal, shared by many other New Yorkers, is to bring oysters back to New York City and restore New Yorkers’ connections to this largely forgotten aspect of our heritage. Perhaps by better understanding the extent of the oyster beds and the close connections New Yorkers in the past had with the humble invertebrate, ambitious projects like the Billion Oyster Project will strike a chord with stakeholders, and we can think of these resiliency programs as avenues to restore what was once a key feature of, and a source of pride for, New York City.
A key idea that we can take from our study of historical ecology is that the past can help us to understand the future. Another example of how we can apply this is by combining museum collections, historic field notes and observations, and old records to study how fish populations have changed in Central New York. By understanding how the ecosystems have changed — how fish populations and community compositions have shifted and which factors were responsible for these shifts — we are better able to determine conservation priorities and predict the effects of future changes.
Within the Oswego River watershed, which encompasses the Fingerlakes region and Oneida Lake, detailed, state-wide surveys have been occurring since the 1920s. Environmental factors such as land use; local, state, and national management decisions and policy initiatives; invasive species; and climate have changed over the century since these surveys began, so by comparing the historic data to modern data we can examine how those changes may have correlated to changes in fish assemblages. This information can give us insight into how to create future adaptive management strategies for conservation and restoration areas in the face of new anthropogenic stressors.
Historic data are important for many studies, but the data are not always easy to find. Physical documents can be lost over time, and issues with cataloging can lead to misplaced data. Even sources of data saved in online repositories can be subject to link rot. In other cases, although data are preserved, they end up split up and spread out over a variety of collections and managers, causing researchers to miss “pieces of the puzzle.” Data repositories managed by organizations such as the Biodiversity Heritage Library, the New York State Museum, and the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation can improve the organization and classification of historic data.
The work in our lab highlights how the past can contribute to a vibrant future and that stable, authoritative and trust-worthy repositories of these documents — such as BHL — can continue to inspire the public, support researchers, and empower communities to think deeply about their past. The real advantage of BHL is keeping our ecological memory intact and not allowing us to collectively forget how beautiful, wild, and diverse ecosystems of the past were. If we succumb to this collective amnesia, we risk setting our conservation bar too low and allowing the dulling of our natural environments to continue without even recognizing our losses.