Historical changes (1905-present) in catch size and composition reflect altering fisheries practices on a small Caribbean island
Effective assessments of the status of Caribbean fish communities require historical baselines to adequately understand how much fish communities have changed through time. To identify such changes and their causes, we compiled a historical overview using data collected at the beginning (1905–1908), middle (1958–1965) and end (1984–2016) of the 20th century, of the artisanal fishing practices and their effects on fish populations around Curaçao, a small island in the southern Caribbean. We documented historical trends in total catch, species composition, and catch sizes per fisher per month for different types of fisheries and related these to technological and environmental changes affecting the island’s fisheries and fish communities. We found that since 1905, fishers targeted species increasingly farther from shore after species occurring closer to shore had become rare. This resulted in surprisingly similar catches in terms of weight, but not composition. Large predatory reef fishes living close to shore (e.g., large Epinephelid species) had virtually disappeared from catches around the mid-20th century, questioning the use of data from this period as baseline data for modern day fish assessments. Secondly, we compared fish landings to in-situ counts from 1969 to estimate the relative contributions of habitat destruction and overfishing to the changes in fish abundance around Curaçao. The decline in coral dominated reef communities corresponded to a concurrent decrease in the abundance and diversity of smaller reef fish species not targeted by fishers, suggesting habitat loss, in addition to fishing, caused the observed declines in reef fish abundance around Curaçao.