Shifting Baselines: The Past and the Future of Ocean Fisheriesby Jeremy B.C. Jackson
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Shifting Baselines explores the real-world implications of a groundbreaking idea: we must understand the oceans of the past to protect the oceans of the future. In 1995, acclaimed marine biologist Daniel Pauly coined the term "shifting baselines" to describe a phenomenon of lowered expectations, in which each generation regards a progressively poorer natural world as normal. This seminal volume expands on Pauly's work, showing how skewed visions of the past have led to disastrous marine policies and why historical perspective is critical to revitalize fisheries and ecosystems.
Edited by marine ecologists Jeremy Jackson and Enric Sala, and historian Karen Alexander, the book brings together knowledge from disparate disciplines to paint a more realistic picture of past fisheries. The authors use case studies on the cod fishery and the connection between sardine and anchovy populations, among others, to explain various methods for studying historic trends and the intricate relationships between species. Subsequent chapters offer recommendations about both specific research methods and effective management. This practical information is framed by inspiring essays by Carl Safina and Randy Olson on a personal experience of shifting baselines and the importance of human stories in describing this phenomenon to a broad public.
While each contributor brings a different expertise to bear, all agree on the importance of historical perspective for effective fisheries management. Readers, from students to professionals, will benefit enormously from this informed hindsight.
"Contributors present an analysis of historical data on the impacts of humans on marine systems, and address the need to understand the past to help predict the future. The essays are presented in a clear, logical manner..."
"Ecologists and historians, in an all-too-rare collaboration, combine their perspectives to explore the significance of the shifting-baselines paradigm in a set of studies that cover most of the world's major oceans."
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The Past and the Future of Ocean Fisheries
By Jeremy B.C. Jackson, Karen Alexander, Enric Sala
ISLAND PRESSCopyright © 2011 Island Press
All rights reserved.
A Shoreline Remembrance
Well over forty years ago—I was about five—my father drove us from Brooklyn to Long Island for a day of picnicking and fishing at a coastal state park. At one point, my mother bravely walked me into the edge of a gull colony. A city girl from Manhattan, she must have been almost as frightened as I, because I remember her squeezing my hand and holding her hat down as the birds—seemingly the size of condors—swooped in with menacing threat calls and the close whoosh of wings. I was terrified. But then suddenly at my feet, there was an amazing bowl of grass and feathers cradling three astonishing, huge speckled eggs. It was my first brush with something wild, and it filled me with a sense of mystery and magical potential. Before the escalating agitation of the great birds forced my mother and me to beat a prudent retreat, that nest made a lifetime impression.
Years later I began a decade of studying terns just down the beach from that same colony, and I visited the gulls regularly. When I began research toward my Ph.D. in ecology, I ran my boat each morning past the same island the gulls nested on and the very shoreline my mother had led me along.
For more than twenty years, I lived only about four miles from that gull colony, and each morning when I walked the mile from my home to the bay I saw that gull island. No one else in my professional world stayed in a single place for so long. Everyone went from home to college to graduate school to post docs to jobs.
I did most of these things, but just by chance, I never moved very far. During this lifetime in one place, I noticed changes in abundance of fish and other creatures. The fish I hunted for food and fun—striped bass, flounders, sea bass, sharks, marlin, tunas, plus sea turtles—all seemed in a continuous ebb tide of excessive catch and population decline. Fishermen I knew were grumbling, but virtually no one in the scientific community and not a single environmental group was talking about changes in fish populations.
Learned, sophisticated people, it seemed, just didn't stay in one place long enough to see changes over time. Funding agencies wanted results, not pointless, repetitive long-term monitoring studies. Other ecologists were obsessed with "hypothesis testing"—preferring to guess rather than patiently observe—a quicker route to "getting papers" and getting promotions.
But for the simple reason that I stayed put long enough to gain a place-based personal history, I witnessed the diminishment of my natural world. First it saddened me, then angered me, then outraged me to action. My approach to fishing changed and my career as scientist took a different direction. I wanted to tell everyone how drastic these changes had been. Personally witnessing history made me appreciate time's great orienting power. Time constantly transforms space. Like tide, it waits for no one.
Why the Past Is Important
Everything is on the way to becoming different, but in nature conservation, the past is the only rational guide to a better future. This is not true in medicine or electrical engineering or communications, where the past offers little insight on future developments. But we have diminished every realm of nature—forests, fishes, corals, climate—so thoroughly that almost no controls are left for comparison. The past must often become the control site.
Control sites are important. In tropical and subtropical seas, the U.S.-owned uninhabited Northwestern Hawaiian Islands and Palmyra Atoll are among few control sites left. Recent studies compared relative weight or biomass of big versus small fishes between the main Hawaiian Islands, the remote Northwest Hawaiian Islands, and Palmyra. The results: the weight of big, carnivorous fishes was only 3 percent of the entire fish community around the main Hawaiian Islands, but was 54 percent in the remote Northwest Hawaiian Islands, and even more around Palmyra Atoll. Even greater differences have been found when scientists surveyed the extremely remote Kingman atoll in the Line Islands—here, top predators comprised 85 percent of reef fish biomass. I've been to many of these places and the difference is profoundly striking—and a bit scary because of the abundance of big sharks. My book Eye of the Albatross relates my impressions of the amazing numbers of tuna and sharks around Midway Atoll—closed to fishing for half a century.
On the basis of the main Hawaiian Islands alone, no living person could have described the changes and no hypothesis could have been tested. So what of the rest of the world? We have no untouched Newfoundland to compare with the one we've fished for centuries.
The past is our only marker, orienting us in a trackless sea to the receding coast of our origins. Nature has no hope in the absence of history. But wringing information out of the past is problematic because scientists generally weren't around to document what was happening. Yet I want to ask whether ecologists overestimate this difficulty, insisting on standards of proof higher than necessary to get at the truth.
In other fields people seem to have less trouble accepting historical writings and authoritative anecdote. No one seems skeptical about what Europeans wore in the fifteenth century, or what their farm animals were like, or how Christopher Columbus's ships were built, though that information didn't come from scientists' clipboards.
So why does it seem unsatisfactory and unconvincing when we read Ferdinand Columbus's description that "in those twenty leagues, the sea was thick with turtles so numerous it seemed the ships would run aground on them and were as if bathing in them." Bathing in turtles? Surely, that can't be accurate!
We accept as credible Francisco Pizzaro's description of contact with the Incas but view as untrustworthy or even dismissible the notion of Caribbean turtles so locally dense during the 1600s that one Edward Long wrote, "It is affirmed that vessels which have lost their latitude in hazy weather have steered entirely by the noise which these creatures make in swimming." Both are equally anecdotal, yet even I will admit more skepticism about nonscientists' natural-history observation. I wonder why this is, and whether there is really proper justification for it.
If we are going to dismiss the writing of eyewitnesses, we should have better reason than the unconscious assumption that the world started on our first day of graduate school.
Many ecologists observe that the great drawback of historical information is that it was not scientifically, systematically collected. This is generally true, but not absolutely true. The scientific method is the most powerful toolkit, but it is not the only systematic way of acquiring information. For example, astronomy and the study of plate tectonics lack the formal scientific method of hypothesis, experimentation, and control groups. Yet these are sciences because science is the systematic pursuit of true facts that characterize existence.
Those explorers, traders, ship captains, and merchants who wrote the observations that historians now study were not scientists. Yet they were systematically pursuing something. They were motivated to keep track, to record observations. In an era before widespread professional science, their pursuit of new knowledge was often protoscientific. We can easily see a systematic approach in the record keeping of ship captains like Captain Robert Fitzroy of the Beagle (who kept better records of the origin of finch specimens than his young naturalist Charles Darwin) and Captain Charles Scammon, who meticulously documented the gray whales he nearly exterminated.
Science studies the messy, noisy, nonquantified world around us, selects things to focus on, and polishes its observations until the truth begins to shine through. Scientific observation, thought, discourse, and analysis can also be applied to material gathered and written by nonscientists. Historians are trained to think this way, yet ecologists seem unduly suspicious.
Yes, we should be suspicious of all sources of information. The world abounds in Trojan horses. Whaling and fishing captains often falsified their logbooks (especially as restrictions grew) and this has come to light spectacularly in several cases. Explorers had motive to hyperbolize their discoveries so their next expeditions could be funded. (Even scientists, despite greater efforts toward objectivity, can also be unconsciously affected by the funding imperative.) But not all historical information suggests great abundance. Some records speak of scarcity, and this further suggests reliability.
So scientists ought to at least be curious and not dismissive about the writings of seafarers who were dependable enough for investors of the day, competent enough to find their way to the edge of the earth and back, and thorough enough to systematically exterminate much of what they found. They got the first glimpses of a world that was round and whole. They were professionals on the leading edge of their time, and not all of them were lying or exaggerating. Their information was reliable enough to open fishing and whaling and sealing industries and trade routes. Their businesses required accurate accounting of the animals they killed. They had their stubborn superstitions, but we have our scientific orthodoxies. If we could meet today, we might understand each other all too well.
New attempts to look at the history of whale, turtle, and fish populations have ignited fierce criticism. The new analyses—each using very different techniques and timescales—have their strengths and weaknesses. Experience suggests that some are likely wrong, others likely right.
Let's make sure we debate the flaws and merits, not the notions. Let's make sure we are at least open to well-supported alternate ideas. Some people seem threatened by the very possibility that explorers were credible eyewitnesses or that removing a few million whales, a few million turtles, and billions of long-lived fishes might have changed the ocean.
Historical analyses in ecology are so unusual they have all the earmarks of big new ideas—shocking, heretical, minority-held. Let's bear in mind, as we shred new news with our learned criticisms, that many breakthrough ideas in science are at first attacked. Remember that geologists spent half the last century resisting the idea that the surface of Earth floats on moving plates. I myself independently discovered in third grade that South America looks like it once fit up against Africa—only to be assured that I was wrong. Had I had this insight fifty years earlier, resisted my teachers, and withstood a withering career of derisive criticism, I might have contributed something significant to geology.
We need many more controversial retrospective analyses along all available lines of investigation—historical, genetic, ecological—and they need to be as good as they can be, improved by competitive debate and by contributions of differing schools of thought. There is excellent information that is still low fruit, waiting to be analyzed. In 2003 Ram Myers and Boris Worm showed this in their analyses of existing, accessible data sets that had previously been ignored. Japan's longline data is almost certainly the longest-running ocean monitoring program in the world, but was overlooked until their study even by people who knew of its existence. Yet only by knowing, for instance, that 90 percent of the big fish are gone can we voice an informed recovery goal or an argument over what is sustainable. Be aware that the forces of evil are working the other side of the street. Tuna industry consultants and lobbyists removed the first half of the data set from Atlantic bluefin assessments because it showed a clear relationship between abundance of spawning fish and spawning success.
The past is more important because we are losing any sense of it. Our society shows profound disdain for history. Many cultures venerate elders and classic stories, but we are obsessed with modernism, unconscious of our roots. Animals, plants, habitats, and human cultures vanish. Even the memories of them are disappearing.
Why? To a significant extent our culture obliterates history and dismisses elders because no one owns history, and elders aren't lucrative corporate customers. Merchandising and fashion, thus advertising and the vehicles of advertising—magazines, TV, movies, the Internet—virtually ignore mature people, who often have sense enough not to buy what they don't need.
To younger generations who don't see the scam, perspective, wisdom, and history—even recent popular history—are practically invisible. A friend of mine who teaches maritime studies tells me that neither of his two teenage children has heard of Jacques Cousteau. Without the past we are disinherited, flying blind, naïve and vulnerable.
The past is important because the tragedy of the commons exists not just in place but also in time. Understanding what options and natural wealth have been robbed from us must motivate us to work against the robber barons now desecrating the great commons of time, sucking up the future, and stealing our descendants' natural endowment and compromising their well-being. Coral reefs, ice ecosystems, climate stability—great bites of nature have been degraded at the expense of future potential. Replacement cost will be measured in generations of lives over decades and centuries.
Society needs to get oriented. The past is important because the more we learn of it the better we might safeguard future options. A profoundly ahistorical society lives only in the present in the most dangerous way possible: consuming natural capital, while freezing and reversing progress on human rights and dignity. Those of us with a sense of history comprise a minority. These are very serious problems. To me the only correct response is moral outrage.
Now, the good news: the shifting baselines problem is not one of absence of data as much as absence of analysis and lack of communication. And both problems are improving. No students were surveying Native Americans' cod catches four thousand years ago, yet we have very informative reconstructions from Indian middens. No British or American scientists counted turtles in the Cayman Islands in the 1700s, yet we have very detailed population range estimates based on trade records and nesting beach observations. No Canadian observers with clipboards and hard hats were aboard fishing boats in 1900, yet we have a very informative historical analysis. Happily, this list is growing.
We should fill in the blanks with a sense of mission. Nothing is more precious than the rich, biologically diverse world that is our rightful heritage. That great tree of life contained all our future options. We have been handed a tree of life pruned and truncated. We must not hand the next generation a bush. To prevent further destruction, we need both science and the orienting power of history.
The world is in an anti-scientific mood. On Darwin's birthday in 2009 only 39 percent of Americans believed that evolution occurs, and the world is being set aflame by religious, political, and corporate ideologies. Yet, science is the anti-ideology: the search for truth. Just as martyrs died for religion and liberty, they also died for imagining new scientific truths. It is foe to cynicism. It is a threat to demagoguery, ignorance, political corruption, and corporate recklessness. Anyone fortunate enough to have received scientific training inherits a great moral imperative to spread the power of knowledge. This imperative should propel every one of us.
The past asks our trust. In exchange for that trust, it will help us focus our field of targets; it will inspire us toward healing and sober us with the parameters of plausibility. And even if the data are spotty and not quantified and we can learn only the broad generalizations and merely half of what we burn to know, that's still reason enough to seek, to dig, and to get to work.CHAPTER 2
The "March of Folly" in Global Fisheries U. RASHID SUMAILA AND DANIEL PAULY
It has now become apparent to most interested parties that marine fisheries throughout the world are in serious trouble. Notably, the large, long-lived, and usually pricey fishes on top of marine food webs have declined by at least one order of magnitude relative to the period immediately following World War II, and global landings peaked in the late 1980s. In many coastal communities such as Newfoundland, fish stocks, which for centuries had supported vibrant fisheries, have collapsed with enormous economic and social costs. Similarly, in Ghana, West Africa, many locals no longer fish because their resource base has been depleted, largely by foreign industrial fisheries. This, in turn, has threatened the food security of local coastal communities.
Self-defeating practices are of course nothing new. In her famous book The March of Folly, historian Barbara Tuchman describes many instances of governments around the world pursuing policies contrary to their own self-interest and that of their people. The well-documented destruction of successive fisheries, and their supporting biodiversity and ecosystems, is a prime example of this folly. Current fisheries management policies led to the "march"—and endanger global food security. Yet there are measures that, if implemented, would overcome this pathology.
Excerpted from Shifting Baselines by Jeremy B.C. Jackson, Karen Alexander, Enric Sala. Copyright © 2011 Island Press. Excerpted by permission of ISLAND PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author
Jeremy Jackson is Director of the Center for Marine Biodiversity and Conservation at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography. Karen Alexander is a historian who is currently Project Coordinator of the Gulf of Maine Cod Project. Enric Sala is National Geographic Society Fellow.
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