Shifting baselines occur when the state of the environment changes over time but we fail to record or remember by how much. We come to accept as 'normal' or 'natural' what we see around us even though things looked very different through the eyes of previous generations.
The result is a gradual lowering of our standards with respect to the health of our ocean environment. Most people fishing today are not able to compare their experience with that of someone fishing 50 years ago. A good day for today's fisher might be to catch five fish, but half a century ago, twenty fish was more likely to be the norm. This is the shifting baseline at work.
Shifting Baselines in our oceans
It is hard for us to picture how full of life our seas once were compared to today's degraded reality. The most common fish on coral reefs used to be the large predators. Now sharks are a rare and wonderful sight on most reefs. In temperate areas, huge kelp forests once dominated in areas where we now see bare rock covered in sea urchins.
The phrase 'plenty more fish in the sea' still conjures in our minds the idea of a limitless resource. Although today we have a sense that our oceans are finite and overfishing is recognised as a key threat, collectively we still struggle to take the necessary steps to address the problem. Recognising that baselines have shifted is an important step in catalysing the action needed. Informed seafood choices can be a real part of the solution to our ocean's blues.
We can't turn back the clock but we can set conservation targets which attempt to restore the health of our oceans to their former glory.