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A 1200-year record of parrotfish teeth suggests centuries of overfishing in Belize.


Humans have utilized the Mesoamerican Reef for millennia but the effects of prehistorical and historical fishing on this ecosystem remain understudied. To assess long-term trends in reef fish abundance in the central Belizean portion, we used three reef matrix cores from this region to construct a record of parrotfish (Labridae) tooth abundance relative to the total number of all fish tooth subfossils. Parrotfish positively affect reef accretion rates and play a pivotal role in maintaining reefs in a coral-dominated state. Our study examined a 1200-year record across three coral cays: Elbow and Lagoon Cays and Bakers Rendezvous. Despite initial increases of fish tooth abundance at all three cays, declines were observed well before modern reef degradation. At Elbow Cay, an initial decline, likely due to Pre-Columbian Maya fishing, appears to be halted near the time of Spanish arrival. A subsequent decline begins at Elbow and Lagoon Cays likely due to Spanish colonization. The religious practices of the Catholic Spanish and the arrival of English privateers and logwooders likely increased fishing pressure. Bakers Rendezvous shows rapid accretion and parrotfish tooth accumulation as well as high tooth abundances, even as the other two cays show declines. Its sharper, more recent decline is likely the result of either the use of new, more southern fishing territories for Catholic Maya converts, the 1832 founding of Stann Creek Town by the Catholic Garifuna, or an interaction of the two. Our data suggest that the origins of reef degradation began hundreds of years before modern declines.

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