Shifting Sands; Shifting Baselines
Everyone has heard the age old adage, “things just aren’t what they used to be”. Change is inevitable and sometimes change is positive, but increasingly scientists are pressured by its impacts because we cannot recollect exactly what change has been made.
In 1995, Professor Daniel Pauly identified in fisheries science a phenomenon he called the ‘shifting baselines syndrome’. He observed each new generation of scientists accepting the state of fisheries that they observed at the beginning of their career as the baseline for monitoring stocks, not recognising that their personal baseline was often already a vastly degraded one .
As each new generation begins their career, accepting their personal baseline for ecosystem health, a small and incremental shift away from the historical baseline is registered.
The effects of “Pauly’s Ratchet” may seem very small, until we consider the time line over which we have had impact on the environment.
Australia’s first case of overfishing did not occur in recent times but in the late 1800’s. A fishery for the native mud oyster (Ostrea angasi) was alive and well throughout that century, with hundreds of thousands of pounds of oysters removed every year.
While the native mud oyster still occurs in many parts of Australia, the oyster reef habitat that supported the industrial scale of this fishery by 1890, were nearly extinct.
Historical ecology is a growing field of science dedicated to the recollection of forgotten environments and the reconstruction of past ecological baselines. Scientists are developing novel ways to use pictures, anecdotes, newspaper articles and the diaries of early explorers to quantitatively reconstruct what the environment used to look like.
That photo hiding in your grandparent’s album of a fun days fishing is no longer a picture of yesteryear, but an accurate record of what once was. This picture can be converted to data and used to measure changes in the numbers of fish taken, the types of fish people caught, or the average size of a species.
One of the most dynamic and creative people working to describe what the environment used to look like is Dr. Randy Olson. Before directing ‘Flock of Dodos: The evolution of intelligent design circus’ (showing at RiAus on Wednesday 18 April), Dr. Olson worked on the ‘Shifting Baselines Ocean Media Project’; a website dedicated to highlighting the significance of the changes we have made to the environment through visual media.
On 15 May 2012 Dr. Olson will be visiting RiAus to share his stories about film making and the challenges of representing science for popular culture; work not just about documentaries, but about documenting change.
By Heidi Alleway
RiAus Film Club: Flock of Dodos: The evolution of intelligent design circus on Wednesday 18 April 2012
Telling science stories with Randy Olson on Tuesday 15 May 2012
‘The Unnatural History of the Sea’, Professor Callum Roberts
‘Shifting Baselines: The past and the future of ocean fisheries’, Jeremy Jackson, Karen Alexander and Enric Sala
Shifting Baselines: Common sense for the oceans