Shifting baselines syndrome is an extremely dangerous problem for our world’s oceans – yet few people understand what it is or what it actually means.
In short Shifting Baselines describes a phenomenon happening all across the world, where people perceive a degraded marine environment as ‘normal’, and forget what a healthy ‘baseline’ ecosystem should look like.
Let me simplify with an example:
My grandfather grew up fishing off the coast, and recalls vast schools of baitfish boiling at the ocean’s surface, massive groupers being caught every day, and sharks prowling the waters by the hundreds. This is my grandfather’s norm, or his baseline. It’s what he perceives as a healthy ecosystem.
My father grew up in the same place, fishing the same waters. He recalls lots of baitfish, but much smaller groupers, and only a dozen sharks every now and then. This is what my Father perceives as being ‘Normal’ – much different from my grandfather correct?
Now I Myself grew up fishing these same waters. But what I found was baitfish scattered around the area, very few small groupers, and no sharks. But to me, this is ‘Normal’!
Do you see the problem? Overfishing has depleted this area’s fish, but as generations go by we forget what the ecosystem used to look like! We think that smaller fish, less predators, and fewer catches are the norm.
Fisheries scientist Daniel Pauly was the first person to coin the term ‘Shifting Baselines’ in his paper – Anecdotes and the shifting baseline syndrome of fisheries.
The problem with Shifting Baselines is that it has serious implications for conservation. Some ecosystems have become so depleted, that a slight improvement might seem like a big win. But in reality, that ecosystem used to be flourishing with life, and even a small recovery isn’t near what the environment should look like.
So how do we fight shifting baselines syndrome? Through science and education. By helping local fishers and conservationists understand how an ecosystem should look and function, we can set true targets to restore these damaged ecosystems.