Prehistoric Baseline reveals Substantial Decline of Oyster Reef Condition in a Gulf of Mexico Conservation Priority Area

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shifting baselines, deep-time, conservation palaeobiology, isotope sclerochronology, oyster reef, Crassostrea virginica

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The Gulf of Mexico (GoM) is home to the world's largest remaining wild oyster fisheries, but baseline surveys needed to assess habitat condition are recent and may represent an already-shifted reference state. Here, we use prehistoric oysters from archaeological middens to show that oyster size, an indicator of habitat function and population resilience, declined prior to the earliest assessments of reef condition in an area of the GoM previously considered pristine. Stable isotope sclerochronlogy reveals extirpation of colossal oysters occurred through truncated life history and slowed growth. More broadly, our study suggests that management strategies affected by shifting baselines may overestimate resilience and perpetuate practices that risk irreversible decline.

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Biology Letters, v. 16, issue 2, art. 20190865