In this paper we demonstrate that low level 'artisanal' fishing can dramatically affect populations of slow-growing, late-maturing animals and that even on remote oceanic islands, stocks have been depleted and ecosystems degraded for millennia. Industrialised fisheries have developed during different decades in different regions of the world, and this has almost always been followed by a period of massive stock decline. However, ecosystems were not pristine before the onset of industrial fishing and it is difficult to assess the 'virgin' state of a population given that it may have been subject to moderate or even high levels of fishing mortality for many centuries. A wide range of information is available to help define or deduce historic marine population status. These include 'traditional' written sources but also less conventional sources such as archaeological remains, genetic analyses or simple anecdotal evidence. Detailed information, collected specifically for the purpose of determining fish stock biomass tends to exist only for recent decades, and most fishery assessments around the world (and thus time-series of biomass estimates), are less than 30 years long. Here we advocate using a wider range of multidisciplinary data sources, although we also recognise that it can be difficult to separate natural variability associated with changing climatic conditions from human-induced changes through fishing. We consider whether or not recovery of degraded ecosystems is ever possible and discuss a series of one-way ratchet like processes that can make it extremely difficult to return to a former ecosystem state.