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Environment and History

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Environment and History

Boring Through History: An Environmental History of the Extent, Impact and Management of Marine Woodborers in a Global and Local Context, 500 BCE to 1930s CE

Courtney A. Rayes, James Beattie and Ian C. Duggan

Environment and History 21 (2015): 477-512. doi: 10.3197/096734015X14414683716163

While depictions of mariners fighting fearsome sea monsters or battling terrifying storms entertain us to this day, it is perhaps ironic that one of the main threats to commerce over the last millennium or more has come from a series of very small organisms whose history has been submerged in historical accounts. Despite their marked long-term and large-scale impacts on global marine infrastructure, shipping and economies, shipworms, pillbugs and gribbles - collectively referred to as marine woodborers - have received no substantial scholarly attention from environmental historians. This article first overviews their historical spread around the world, demonstrating, too, their disruption of global travel and trade, then traces past problems and management attempts in New Zealand from the arrival of the first humans, c.1300, to the 1930s. New Zealand presents a particularly rich study demonstrating the spread, impacts and management responses to marine woodborers. Until the more widespread and successful use from the 1900s of both ferro-concrete pilings and chromated copper arsenate (CCA) as a wood preservative, colonists in different parts of New Zealand unknowingly experimented with techniques which had failed elsewhere in the country. A longstanding inability to learn from past failures in nineteenth-century New Zealand demonstrates the lack of co-ordinated application of management techniques in the colony, and suggests both the fragmentation of colonial knowledge and the limitations of colonial science, as new ideas were introduced at a local level rather than nationally. Due to the overwhelming attention given to globalisation's role in spreading terrestrial plants and animals - and to a lesser extent aquatic freshwater fishes - an examination of the extent and response to marine woodborers provides significant new perspectives on the neglected subject of non-indigenous marine organisms.

KEYWORDS: Marine environmental history, world history, global history, imperial history, introduced organisms

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