Researchers from the University of Hawaii and Simon Fraser University in Vancouver, Canada, studied reef fisheries in Hawaii since the islands were first colonized 700 years ago and found early cultures learned how to get high yields without overexploitation.
The earliest Hawaiians had little farming and were reliant on the sea for much of their food, consuming an estimated 400 pounds per capita per year, about the same consumed in Pacific island countries that rely on seafood today, researchers said.
The scientists estimated the total annual catch, assuming a conservative estimate that Hawaiian population reached 160,000 before contact with European settlers.
"The coral reef fisheries yielded three to four times what people think is the sustainable yield for reef fisheries today," University of Hawaii researcher Jack Kittinger said "And we were very conservative in our yield estimates -- it's crazy."
Researchers say they believe the Hawaiian fishing operations were so successful because the pre-European society had a complex set of rules in which reefs were regularly closed to fishing, types of fishing gear were strictly regulated, and there were restrictions on eating vulnerable species -- all remarkably prescient of modern regulations and, Kittinger said, valuable lessons for today.
"They had basically the same tools in the toolbox, in terms of reef management strategies, but they used them differently and managed more effectively, with locally developed rules and regulations," Kittinger said. "It is evidence that coral reef fisheries can be sustainable. Ancient Hawaiian societies gave us the road map for how to achieve that in today's context."