The archaeology of Pacific salmon: Reconstructing the past ecology of North American salmonids to understand their future in a fast-changing world


Today, commercially-driven overfishing, along with the rapid and dramatic warming of our
planet, is impacting both human and salmon populations across the planet. Fisheries studies aimed at understanding these impacts compare current and recent population trends to contextualise and quantify trajectories of change and their cause. However, modern ecological and wildlife management studies mostly rely on historical records that are often incomplete and limited to more recent ‘industrial’ times. Archaeology has great potential to provide these studies with a deeper time-depth, and with a more continuous record of ecosystem and biomass dynamics with which to better understand future impacts.

Zooarchaeology is the study of ancient animal remains from archaeological sites aimed at investigating human-animal and animal-environment interactions in the past. Zooarchaeological data can be employed, amongst other things, to reconstruct the long-term abundance and distribution of an animal species in a given geographic area. This information helps create deep-time baselines of animal populations that can be used to model their ecological change through time and investigate how the change may relate to fluctuations in climates and/or anthropogenic behaviour. As well as benefiting archaeology, these baselines can provide vital information on the long-term status of an animal population and their changing abundance and distribution. This can then be deployed by ecology and conservation scientists as a proxy for comparison with modern conditions to aid in the species protection and potential restoration .

The recently developed field of ‘applied zooarchaeology’ seeks to promote the use of zooarchaeological data to inform modern wildlife management, restoration and conservation biology, and tackle some of the issues facing these disciplines. Recent studies have shown the potential of zooarchaeology to reconstruct the past ecology of fish species and assess the impacts of human/climate forces on fish populations. This data can greatly contribute to modern fishery science debates and current conservation efforts.

The scope of our project is to employ zooarchaeological data to reconstruct the past ecology, abundance and distribution of the seven species of Pacific salmonids (Oncorhynchus sp.) using data recovered from archaeological sites on the Pacific coast of North America - one of the most important salmon fisheries in the world. Because of the difference in life cycles and migratory/reproductive behaviour of each Oncorhynchus species, detailed investigations will require accurate identification of their remains to species, achieved via cutting-edge scientific identifications techniques:
Geometric Morphometrics (GMM) - a digital tool based on detailed morphological shape analysis
ZooMS - a biomolecular ‘fingerprinting’ technique enabling the identification of animal bones to species using extracted collagen

Ultimately, this research will allow for the reconstruction of long-term data on past salmon ecosystem change in the northeastern Pacific. The aim is to establish suitable baselines for the pre-industrial/contact status of salmonids in the region. Because salmonids are extremely susceptible to fluctuations in temperature, these baselines can be deployed as models for assessing Oncorhynchus resilience during times of rapid climate change (i.e. Little Ice Age/Medieval Climatic Anomaly). The hope is that the results of this research will be used to provide pre-industrial/pre-European contact data on salmonid status to inform climate change studies in the northeastern Pacific, modern salmonid conservation/fisheries policies and the subsistence-based economies of modern indigenous communities along the Pacific coast, both of whom still rely on these species.


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