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Ecology and Conservation

Dr Ruth Thurstan

Dr Ruth Thurstan

Senior Lecturer in Marine Social-Ecological Systems

 The Farmhouse F02/b


The Farmhouse, University of Exeter, Penryn Campus, Cornwall, TR10 9FE, UK


Human induced changes to our coasts and oceans span much greater periods of time (decades to centuries) than even the longest established scientific monitoring programs. This means that, in addition to continuing and extending our monitoring efforts, we need to use alternative approaches and sources of information to better understand the scale and trajectory of changes that have occurred in our marine ecosystems.

Marine historical ecology is an interdisciplinary approach to research that draws upon (among others) the ecological, historical and social disciplines to understand what our marine and coastal ecosystems looked like and how they functioned in the past, how humans have interacted with these ecosystems over time, and the extent to which our interactions have affected and altered these systems. My work in the UK and Australia has made use of a variety of sources and techniques to better understand the scale and drivers of ecological change, and the consequences of such change for the users of these ecosystems, with a particular focus on finfish and shellfish fisheries. These include government statistical records, popular media, oral history interviews, maritime charts, and underwater coring and in-situ survey methods.

As well as understanding the scale of past changes, I am also interested in how we can best use this knowledge to inform contemporary management and policy, and have worked with non-governmental and governmental organizations to this effect.  

I also have ongoing projects exploring the social aspects of marine protected areas, reconstruction of marine and coastal ecosystem services, and the quantification of technological innovation and uptake in commercial and recreational fisheries.

From 2015-2020 I chaired the International Council for Exploration of the Seas’ Working Group on the History of Fish and Fisheries (ICES WGHIST), which brings together researchers from a variety of disciplines to explore trends in social-ecological systems through time, and how we can apply these findings and perspectives to contemporary management.

Please visit my Google Scholar page to view my published research, or contact me directly if you require PDFs.


2012: PhD in Environmental Economics and Management, University of York

2008: MSc in Marine Environmental Management, University of York

2004: BSc in Marine Biology (Hons), University of Liverpool

Research group links

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Research interests

I have broad interests in research that leads to improving fisheries sustainability and informing marine conservation goals. My core research examines the magnitude, direction and drivers of changes that have occurred in marine social-ecological systems over decadal to centennial scales.

During my PhD I examined neglected government archives (annual reports, scientific enquiries, Royal Commissions, maritime charts) published from the 1860s onwards, to document the magnitude of changes in UK fisheries and coastal ecosystems from the industrial revolution to the present day.

In late 2011 I moved to the University of Queensland, Australia, to undertake a postdoctoral fellowship. During this time I used semi-structured interviews and explored popular media articles (books, magazines, newspapers) to quantitatively determine changes in catch rates, fishing technology and the impact of management measures on several east coast Australian fisheries (commercial and recreational).

In 2016 I commenced a research fellowship at Deakin University, Victoria, Australia. During this period I worked with fisheries scientists and stock assessment modellers to provide historical data for integration into fishery stock assessment.

I joined the Centre for Ecology and Conservation as a lecturer in October 2017.

Research networks

International Council for the Exploration of the Sea (ICES) Working Group on the History of Fish and Fisheries: Chair 2015 - 2020

Oceans Past Initiative Executive Committee: Secretary 2018 - present

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Journal articles

(In Press).
Thurstan R, Diggles B, Gillies C, Strong M, Kerkhove R, Buckley S, King R, Smythe V, Heller-Wagner G, Weeks R, et al (In Press). Charting two centuries of transformation in a coastal social-ecological system: a mixed methods approach. Global Environmental Change
Yates K, Beverley C, Thurstan RH (In Press). Purpose vs Performance: What does marine protected area success look like?. Environmental Science and Policy
Thurstan R (In Press). Something old, something new: historical perspectives provide lessons for blue growth agendas. Fish and Fisheries
Todd P, Here E, Loke L, Thurstan RH, Kotze J, Swan C (In Press). Towards an urban marine ecology: Characterizing the drivers, patterns, and processes of marine ecosystems in coastal cities. Oikos
Chong-Montenegro C, Thurstan RH, Pandolfi JM (2024). Diving into archival data: the hidden decline of the giant grouper (Epinephelus lanceolatus) in Queensland, Australia. Aquatic Conservation: Marine and Freshwater Ecosystems, 34(2). Abstract.
McClenachan L, Rick T, Thurstan R, Trant A, Alagona P, Alleway H, Armstrong C, Bliege Bird R, Rubio-Cisneros N, Clavero M, et al (2024). Global research priorities for historical ecology to inform conservation. Endangered Species Research
Campbell E, Alfaro-Shigueto J, Mangel JC, Mena JL, Thurstan RH, Godley BJ, March D (2023). Satellite-monitored movements of the Amazon River dolphin and considerations for their conservation. Oryx, 57(6), 769-779. Abstract.
Barnett-Naghshineh O, Warmington S, Altink H, Govia I, Morrissey K, Smith MJ, Thurstan R, Unwin N, Guell C (2023). Situating commercial determinants of health in their historical context: a qualitative study of sugar-sweetened beverages in Jamaica. Globalization and Health, 19, 69-69. Abstract.
Thurstan R, Guell C (2023). The shifting baseline syndrome as a connective concept for more informed and just responses to global environmental change. People and Nature Abstract.
Harrison LOJ, Engelhard GH, Thurstan RH, Sturrock AM (2023). Widening mismatch between UK seafood production and consumer demand: a 120-year perspective. Reviews in Fish Biology and Fisheries, 33(4), 1387-1408. Abstract.
Campbell E, Alfaro-Shigueto J, Aliaga-Rossel E, Beasley I, Briceño Y, Caballero S, da Silva V, Gilleman C, Gravena W, Hines E, et al (2022). Challenges and priorities for river cetacean conservation. Endangered Species Research, 49, 13-42.
Chong-Montenegro C, Thurstan RH, Campbell AB, Cunningham ET, Pandolfi JM (2022). Historical reconstruction and social context of recreational fisheries: the Australian East Coast Barramundi. Fisheries Management and Ecology, 29(1), 44-56. Abstract.
Hemraj DA, Bishop MJ, Hancock B, Minuti JJ, Thurstan RH, Zu Ermgassen PSE, Russell BD (2022). Oyster reef restoration fails to recoup global historic ecosystem losses despite substantial biodiversity gain. Science Advances, 8(47). Abstract.
Chong-Montenegro C, Thurstan R, Pandolfi J (2022). Quantifying the historical development of recreational fisheries in Southeast Queensland, Australia. Marine Ecology Progress Series, 696, 135-149.
Thurstan RH (2022). The potential of historical ecology to aid understanding of human–ocean interactions throughout the Anthropocene. Journal of Fish Biology, 101(2), 351-364. Abstract.
Thurstan R, Hockings K, Hedlund J, Bersacola E, Collins C, Early R, Harrison M, Kaiser-Bunbury C, Nuno A, Van Veen F, et al (2021). Envisioning a resilient future for biodiversity conservation in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. People and Nature
Raicevich S, Caswell BA, Bartolino V, Cardinale M, Eddy TD, Giovos I, Lescrauwaet AK, Thurstan RH, Engelhard GH, Klein ES, et al (2021). Sidney Holt, a giant in the history of fisheries science who focused on the future: His legacy and challenges for present-day marine scientists. ICES Journal of Marine Science, 78(6), 2182-2192. Abstract.
Giovos I, Barash A, Barone M, Barría C, Borme D, Brigaudeau C, Charitou A, Brito C, Currie J, Dornhege M, et al (2021). Understanding the public attitude towards sharks for improving their conservation. Marine Policy, 134 Abstract.
Campbell E, Mangel J, Alfaro-Shigueto J, Mena JL, Thurstan R, Godley B (2020). Coexisting in the Peruvian Amazon: Interactions between fisheries and river dolphins. Journal for Nature Conservation
zu Ermgassen PSE, Thurstan RH, Corrales J, Alleway H, Carranza A, Dankers N, DeAngelis B, Hancock B, Kent F, McLeod I, et al (2020). The benefits of bivalve reef restoration: a global synthesis of underrepresented species. Aquatic Conservation: Marine and Freshwater Ecosystems, 30(11), 2050-2065. Abstract.
Rossi S, Isla E, Bosch-Belmar M, Galli G, Gori A, Gristina M, Ingrosso G, Milisenda G, Piraino S, Rizzo L, et al (2019). Changes of energy fluxes in marine animal forests of the anthropocene: Factors shaping the future seascape. ICES Journal of Marine Science, 76(7), 2008-2019. Abstract.
Butler PG, Estrella‐Martínez J, Scourse JD, Thurstan RH (2019). Reconstruction of Atlantic herring (Clupea harengus) recruitment in the North Sea for the past 455 years based on the δ13C from annual shell increments of the ocean quahog (Arctica islandica). Fish and Fisheries
Thurstan RH, Brittain Z, Jones DS, Cameron E, Dearnaley J, Bellgrove A (2018). Aboriginal uses of seaweeds in temperate Australia: an archival assessment. Journal of Applied Phycology, 30(3), 1821-1832. Abstract.
Thurstan RH (2018). Fishing and Shipwreck Heritage. Marine Archaeology's Greatest Threat?Sean A.Kingsley, Bloomsbury Publishing, 2016. 152 pp. Fish and Fisheries, 20(1), 199-200.
Thurstan RH, Buckley S, Pandolfi JM (2018). Trends and transitions observed in an iconic recreational fishery across 140 years. Global Environmental Change, 52, 22-36.
Pendleton L, Ahmadia GN, Browman HI, Thurstan RH, Kaplan DM, Bartolino V (2017). Debating the effectiveness of marine protected areas. ICES Journal of Marine Science
Buckley SM, Thurstan RH, Tobin A, Pandolfi JM (2017). Historical spatial reconstruction of a spawning‐aggregation fishery. Conservation Biology, 31(6), 1322-1332. Abstract.
Thurstan RH, Game E, Pandolfi JM (2017). Popular media records reveal multi-decadal trends in recreational fishing catch rates. PLoS ONE, 12(8). Abstract.
Roelfsema C, Thurstan R, Beger M, Dudgeon C, Loder J, Kovacs E, Gallo M, Flower J, Gomez Cabrera K-L, Ortiz J, et al (2016). A Citizen Science Approach: a Detailed Ecological Assessment of Subtropical Reefs at Point Lookout, Australia. PLoS One, 11(10). Abstract.  Author URL.
Engelhard GH, Thurstan RH, MacKenzie BR, Alleway HK, Bannister RCA, Cardinale M, Clarke MW, Currie JC, Fortibuoni T, Holm P, et al (2016). ICES meets marine historical ecology: Placing the history of fish and fisheries in current policy context. ICES Journal of Marine Science, 73(5), 1386-1403. Abstract.
Alleway HK, Thurstan RH, Lauer PR, Connell SD (2016). Incorporating historical data into aquaculture planning. ICES Journal of Marine Science, 73(5), 1427-1436. Abstract.
Thurstan RH, Buckley SM, Ortiz JC, Pandolfi JM (2016). Setting the Record Straight: Assessing the Reliability of Retrospective Accounts of Change. Conservation Letters, 9(2), 98-105. Abstract.
Thurstan RH, McClenachan L, Crowder LB, Drew JA, Kittinger JN, Levin PS, Roberts CM, Pandolfi JM (2015). Filling historical data gaps to foster solutions in marine conservation. Ocean and Coastal Management, 115, 31-40. Abstract.
Thurstan RH, Campbell AB, Pandolfi JM (2014). Nineteenth century narratives reveal historic catch rates for <scp>A</scp>ustralian snapper (<i><scp>P</scp>agrus auratus</i>). Fish and Fisheries, 17(1), 210-225. Abstract.
Thurstan RH, Hawkins JP, Roberts CM (2014). Origins of the bottom trawling controversy in the British Isles: 19th century witness testimonies reveal evidence of early fishery declines. Fish and Fisheries, 15(3), 506-522. Abstract.
Thurstan RH, Roberts CM (2014). The past and future of fish consumption: can supplies meet healthy eating recommendations?. Marine Pollution Bulletin, 89(1-2), 5-11. Abstract.
Howarth LM, Roberts CM, Thurstan RH, Stewart BD (2014). The unintended consequences of simplifying the sea: Making the case for complexity. Fish and Fisheries, 15(4), 690-711. Abstract.
Thurstan RH, Hawkins JP, Raby L, Roberts CM (2013). Oyster (Ostrea edulis) extirpation and ecosystem transformation in the Firth of Forth, Scotland. Journal for Nature Conservation, 21(5), 253-261. Abstract.
Thurstan RH, Hawkins JP, Neves L, Roberts CM (2012). Are marine reserves and non-consumptive activities compatible? a global analysis of marine reserve regulations. Marine Policy, 36(5), 1096-1104. Abstract.
Thurstan RH, Roberts CM (2010). Ecological meltdown in the firth of clyde, Scotland: Two centuries of change in a coastal marine ecosystem. PLoS ONE, 5(7). Abstract.
Thurstan RH, Brockington S, Roberts CM (2010). The effects of 118 years of industrial fishing on UK bottom trawl fisheries. Nature Communications, 1(2). Abstract.
Thurstan RH, Brockington S, Roberts CM (2010). The effects of 118 years of industrial fishing on UK bottom trawl fisheries. Nature communications, 1 Abstract.


Gergel SE, Thurstan RH (2021). Historical assessment. In  (Ed) The Routledge Handbook of Research Methods for Social-Ecological Systems, 348-358.
Ban NC, Kittinger JN, Pandolfi JM, Pressey RL, Thurstan RH, Lybolt MJ, Hart S, Gedan KB (2019). 10. Incorporating Historical Perspectives into Systematic Marine Conservation Planning. In  (Ed) Marine Historical Ecology in Conservation, University of California Press, 207-234.
Thurstan RH, Fraser K, Brewer D, Buckley S, Skewes T, Pollock B (2019). Fishing and fisheries of Moreton Bay. In Tibbetts I, Rothlisberg P, Neil D, Homburg T, Brewer D, Arthington A (Eds.) Moreton Bay Quandamooka & Catchment: Past, present, and future, the Moreton Bay Foundation:. Abstract.
Thurstan RH, Pandolfi JM, zu Ermgassen PSE (2017). Animal Forests Through Time: Historical Data to Understand Present Changes in Marine Ecosystems. In Rossi S, Bramanti L, Gori A, Orejas C (Eds.) Marine Animal Forests: the Ecology of Benthic Biodiversity Hotspots, Springer International Publishing, 947-963. Abstract.
Thurstan RH, Yates KL, O’Leary BC (2017). Compatibility of offshore energy installations with marine protected areas. In  (Ed) Offshore Energy and Marine Spatial Planning, 214-230. Abstract.
Klein ES, Thurstan RH (2016). Acknowledging long-term ecological change: the problem of shifting baselines. In  (Ed) Perspectives on Oceans Past, 11-29. Abstract.
Thurstan RH, Pandolfi JM, zu Ermgassen PSE (2016). Animal Forests Through Time: Historical Data to Understand Present Changes in Marine Ecosystems. In  (Ed) Marine Animal Forests, Springer Nature, 1-17.
Thurstan RH, Buckley SM, Pandolfi JM (2016). Oral histories: Informing natural resource management using perceptions of the past. In  (Ed) Perspectives on Oceans Past, 155-173. Abstract.
Ban NC, Kittinger JN, Pandolfi JM, Pressey RL, Thurstan RH, Lybolt MJ, Hart S (2014). Incorporating Historical Perspectives into Systematic Marine Conservation Planning. In  (Ed) Marine Historical Ecology in Conservation, University of California Press, 207-233.


Guell C, Barnett-Naghshineh O, Warmington S, Altink H, Morrissey K, Smith MJ, Thurstan R, Unwin N, Govia I (2022). OP15 How can history be harnessed for understanding commercial determinants of health in Jamaica? a qualitative study of sugar-sweetened beverages. SSM Annual Scientific Meeting.
Clarke B, Thurstan R, Yates K (2016). Stakeholder perceptions of a coastal marine protected area. Abstract.

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External Engagement and Impact

Committee/panel activities

International Council for the Exploration of the Sea (ICES) Working Group on the History of Fish and Fisheries (WGHIST): Chair 2015 - 2020. Website.

Oceans Past Initiative Executive Committee: Secretary 2018 - present. Website.

Editorial responsibilities

Editorial Board Member for Fish and Fisheries. Website.

Media Coverage

Nature Jobs Feature, 20 Sep 2017: Historical data: hidden in the past

ICES, 4 May 2016: Feature article – Changing Perceptions.

Fish & Boat Magazine, 7 Jan 2015: QLD snapper catch rates down.

The Guardian, 20 Nov 2014: Queensland snapper catch rate has fallen nearly 90% since 1870s.

Nature World News, 14 Oct 2014: Health experts say, ‘Eat more fish’, despite dwindling supplies

The Guardian, 10 Feb 2014: Bottom trawling: how to empty the seas in just 150 years.

Nature News, 9 Apr 2013: Fishermen report on stocks from beyond the grave.

BBC COAST Season 6, 26 Jun 2011: Devon and Cornwall

Making Scotland’s Landscape, 7 Nov 2010: The Sea.

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Office Hours:

Wednesday 11.00am-12.00pm

Friday 10.00am-11.00am

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