New Trent University research that explores how people overfished sheepshead in the Gulf of Mexico nearly 200 years ago offers a “cautionary tale” to modern fishery practices.
Former Banting research fellow and adjunct Anthropology professor Dr. Eric Guiry, who led an international research team with Dr. Paul Szpak, Canada research chair in Environmental Archaeology, as well as researchers at University of New Orleans and University of Chicago, showed there were two major, yet previously unrecorded, large-scale overfishing events near New Orleans after the arrival of French settlers.
Understanding how sheepshead fish reacted during this time can help today’s policymakers prepare for and possibly prevent another decline since sheepshead are a likely “next target” when modern-day commercial fishers are unable to harvest other species. In fact, Professor Guiry points out, when the U.S. enacted legislation to protect against red drum overfishing in the Gulf in the 1980s, some commercial harvesters quickly turned to sheepshead.
“If you’re going to enact legislation to protect some fish, you also must consider protecting the next targets as well,” says Prof. Guiry, who became Trent’s first-ever Banting post-doctoral fellow in 2018. “It’s a cautionary tale to consider the system wholistically.”
World-Class Labs to Analyze Archaeological Bones
The research, which informs a paper in Science Advances, is the earliest evidence of overfishing in one of the world’s most productive fishing grounds.
Prof. Guiry notes that Trent’s world-class facilities were crucial to his research, which was conducted in the Trent Environmental Archaeology Laboratory (TEAL), using stable isotope analysis to better understand how humans interacted with environments in the past, and the Water Quality Centre (WQC), one of the most comprehensive mass spectrometry facility in Canada.
Using TEAL and the WQC, researchers analyzed the chemical signatures of archaeological bones to detect trends in the fish populations and determine where sheepshead were caught in the Gulf of Mexico including whether the fish were harvested close to shore or further out at sea.
“There aren’t many labs that are as well-structured as TEAL to analyze so much so quickly,” Prof. Guiry says.
Prof. Guiry says it’s exciting to explore the past to help today’s conservation efforts.
“It really shows how archaeology can play a role in helping to frame today's most pressing biodiversity and conservation challenges,” he says.
Learn more about Trent’s Anthropology department, which offers three major research areas: Archaeology and Bioarchaeology, Sociocultural Anthropology and Linguistic Anthropology.