Jargon Watch: Shifting Baselines


Salmon Culling in British Columbia in the 1890s. Credit: Getty Images

Collective memory is a fickle thing. We all know about the decimation of the American Bison, and the lost flocks of Passenger Pigeons a mile wide and 300 miles long. But, other less visible and more gradual examples of loss can be easily missed. For an explanation of what this can mean, meet the concept of shifting baselines. James MacKinnon, of 100-Mile Diet fame, explains the concept in a recent article in Walrus Magazine.

In 1995, Daniel Pauly, a professor with the Fisheries Centre at the University of British Columbia, coined the term "shifting baselines" to describe the tendency of his peers to measure the health of fish stocks against the length of their own careers. Each generation bemoaned the losses that occurred on their watch, but failed to acknowledge the accumulation of extirpations across centuries, if not millennia — "a gradual accommodation," Pauly wrote, of "creeping disappearance."

Shifting Baselines is also "a media project -- a partnership between ocean conservation and Hollywood to help bring attention to the severity of ocean decline." We'll let their video explain.

While shifting baselines isn't a new concept it is worth revisiting frequently so we don't lose site of the full potential of the natural world. MacKinnon continues.

In 2005, Andrea Sáenz- Arroyo, science director of the Mexican non-profit organization Comunidad y Biodiversidad, led an attempt to quantitatively test the shifting baselines syndrome. She and her team interviewed fishers in eleven communities along the central Gulf of California, which separates the Baja Peninsula from mainland Mexico. The world remembered by fishers who have passed their fifty-fifth birthdays proves far richer than the real world of the present, with five times as many commercial fish species and four times as many productive fishing grounds. The older fishers' memories are supported by historical documents and can't be dismissed as "fish stories." A naturalist visiting the area in 1932 described Gulf grouper "in unimaginable numbers," at sizes that had given rise to the local fishers' slogan "a ton an hour."It is a world in which a fisherman could hope to boast of twentyfive Gulf grouper as a day's catch, enough to feed 700 people or more, each fish with an outraged, grey-lipped mouth that could take in a man's head and shoulders. Most older fishers consider the Gulf grouper stock depleted; the new generation, who on a good day might catch one or two of the great predators, each smaller by twenty kilograms than the fish their grandfathers caught, does not. A study of the upper Gulf of California published in March 2008 confirmed Sáenz- Arroyo's work and made this critical connection: "It is crucial for the restoration of this ecosystem that young fishers and the Mexican public are able to visualize previous states of their local ecosystems."

via The Walrus
Shifting Baselines
More Jargon Watch
Jargon Watch: Carborexia
Jargon Watch: Precycling
Jargon Watch: Locavolt
Jargon Watch: Scuppie
Jargon Watch: Hyperlocalized Agriculture
Jargon Watch: Mari-fuel

Tags: Extinction | Fish | Oceans

Best of TreeHugger