University of Otago researchers say they will use a US$6000 ($9000) grant to develop a record of human exploitation of the coral reefs of the Cook Islands over the past 1000 years.
Darrin Drumm, from the university's marine science faculty, will work with anthropologist Dr Richard Walter on marine ecology, anthropology and archaeology.
"This will help focus conservation efforts by providing a baseline of the historical, pre-impact conditions and an understanding of the magnitude of human-related impacts on the coral reefs and their resources," said Mr Drumm.
The United States grant, from the Marine Conservation Biology Institute, commemorates Mia J. Tegner, a marine biologist from the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, who died in 2001 while carrying out research in the waters of Southern California.
Mr Drumm, who is due to receive his PhD next month, said it was clear that management strategies for Pacific Island societies needed more than ecological or biological data.
He said two strong themes were emerging in Pacific marine management research. One was the importance of understanding the full social and historical dimensions to indigenous interactions with the marine environment, and the second was the importance of indigenous ecological knowledge.
The seven-month project will serve as a pilot study for a two-year, Pacific-wide survey.