History of Marine Animal Populations (HMAP)

An interdisciplinary research program that used historical and environmental archives to analyze marine population data before and after human impacts on the ocean became significant.

Poul Holm
Brian MacKenzie
Anne Husum Marboe


Bo Poulsen
Andrew Rosenberg


Project Leaders:

Poul Holm, Ph.D., Trinity College Dublin, Dublin, Ireland
Brian MacKenzie, Ph.D., National Institute of Aquatic Resources, Charlottenlund, Denmark
Anne Husum Marboe, Roskilde University, Roskilde, Denmark
Bo Poulsen, Ph.D., Roskilde University, Roskilde, Denmark
Andrew Rosenberg, Ph.D., University of New Hampshire, United States

Visit the HMAP website.


The History of Marine Animal Populations (HMAP), the historical component of the Census of Marine Life, aimed to improve our understanding of ecosystem dynamics, specifically with regard to long-term changes in stock abundance, the ecological impact of large-scale harvesting by man, and the role of marine resources in the historical development of human society. Since the earliest historical records, man has harvested a variety of different animals from the oceans. The effects of this activity on marine populations have been of increasing interest over the last century. While ecologists have traditionally aimed to identify the current conditions of many of the animal populations affected both directly and indirectly by harvesting, much less focus has been given to the status of affected populations in earlier times. A historical reference point of marine populations against which modern populations can be compared is necessary in order to determine how ocean ecosystems are changing with respect to human impact and even climate change. HMAP addressed this issue through multidisciplinary studies integrating Marine Ecology, History and Paleo-Ecology. This innnovative combination of research methods and analytical perspectives offered a unique approach to testing theories of the effects of both man’s activities and natural environmental changes on our living marine resources.
The Shore Cod Fishery. Pink-stern schooner
and boats hand-line fishing off Cape Ann, Mass.
(Section V, Vol 1) From a photograph by T.W. Baiffle.

Methods and Objectives
To achieve its goals, HMAP relied on the teamwork of ecologists, marine biologists, historians, anthropologists, archaeologists, paleo-ecologists and paleo-oceanographers. These integrated research teams analyzed data from a variety of unique sources, such as colonial fisheries and monastic records, modern fisheries statistics, ship logs, tax documents, sediment cores and other environmental records, to piece together changes in specific populations throughout history. The resulting long time-series improved our understanding of the effects of human activities and environmental factors, such as climate, currents and salinity, on marine ecosystems.

HMAP implemented its global mission through a case study approach. The case studies were generally regional in scope and focused on a few species of commercial importance or habitat and biodiversity changes. Individual studies were selected on the basis that the ecosystem had been subject to fishing and that there existed sufficient historical data on catches and harvesting effort. The following seven case studies around the world give an idea of the depth and breadth of research undertaken:

  • Northwest Atlantic (Gulf of Maine, Newfoundland-Grand Banks, Greenland cod fisheries)
  • Southwest Pacific (Southeast Australian Shelf and Slope fisheries, New Zealand Shelf fisheries)
  • White and Barents Seas (Russian and Norwegian herring, salmon and cod fisheries, and Atlantic walrus hunting)
  • Norwegian, North and Baltic Seas (Multinational cod, herring and plaice fisheries)
  • Southwest African Shelf (Clupeid fisheries in a continental boundary current system)
  • Worldwide Whaling (Historical whaling in all oceans)
  • Caribbean communities (Impact of the removal of large predators)

Many HMAP projects interpreted changes in marine populations over the past 500-2000 years, which provided researchers of current and future conditions a baseline that extends back long before the advent of modern technology, or before significant human impact on the ecosystem.

HMAP has improved understanding of the role of marine resources in human history and of the factors controlling marine populations. The project also helped enhance ecological theory, which can be applied to predict the effects of human activities on marine and aquatic ecosystems.

The Bank Trawl-Line Cod Fishery.
Newfoundland fishermen catching squid
for sale as cod bait to United States vessels.
(Sect. V, Vol i, pp.152, 184) Drawing by H.W. Elliott and Capt. J.W. Collins

Building a New Discipline
Three HMAP Centers for the study of Environmental History were established at the University of Southern Denmark, the University of New Hampshire (USA) and the University of Hull (UK). These institutions acted jointly as the central coordinators ofthe project, maintaining research focus, identifying and aiding the implementation of priority research projects, ensuring synchronization among the individual studies, and serving as points of contact for the media and the public.

As this was a groundbreaking study, the Centers also devised and ran educational programs to train graduate students in the multidisciplinary methods of ecological, historical and paleo-ecological research. Each summer, one of the Centers held an intensive, two-week international summer school. The University of Southern Denmark hosted the 2001 summer school, attended by 25 students from eight countries. In 2002, the participation of 33 students from 10 countries in the University of New Hampshire’s summer school demonstrated the growing interest in this type of work.

Greater Reach
 HMAP expanded its geographic scope through the addition of case studies. Regions of particular interest included Southeast Asia, the Wadden Sea and the Mediterranean. Additionally, it encouraged the integration of individual case studies with one another and with the other Census components. As was obligatory for all Census projects, data collected through HMAP formed part of and was made accessible through the Ocean Biogeographic Information System (OBIS), an online global atlas for accessing, modeling and mapping marine biological data in a multidimensional geographic context. Ecological models were then be applied to test hypotheses about the ecological and anthropogenic influences on the marine communities and to reconstruct historical pictures of global marine populations.

Visit the History of Marine Animal Populations website.