Saturday | August 13, 2005
Shifting our baseline
The phrase, �shifting baseline,� was coined by Daniel Pauly to describe the common change in perspective that human society has through time, in particular with respect to the state of our oceans� health. Although our parents may remember an active cod fishery off Nova Scotia, we accept that cod is not common in the markets and that the fishery is only sporadically open. Continue back a couple of generations and consider our forebears who fed nations far and wide with cod, a fishery that seemed limitless. Our general acceptance of the paltry supply of cod, something that would shock our predecessors, is one example of a shifted baseline of our generation.
For about 25 scientists and ship's crew floating off Tabuaeran atoll, this phenomenon is occurring, but in an opposite direction. About half of the sites that we have visited on Tabuaeran have been spectacular, with large table corals hogging all the light, large groupers, snappers, and other fish, a mature algal community, and a sparse invertebrate community (this last part is not in particular 'spectacular', though it is an observation waiting for an explanation). Jen Smith, who has spent the last 8 years studying Hawaiian reefs, returned from one of the dives to say, "My own personal baseline was shifted yesterday."
The shifted baseline is not limited to things that we see with our eyes underwater, but also to other benefits that the ocean shares with us. After a short boat ride off shore yesterday, we hooked two tuna (and landed only one…the other was a monster that was not going to leave home). Tuna are a quickly growing species that use the ocean�s resources efficiently, providing us a good source of fresh meat after a couple weeks at sea. Two days ago we returned from our third dive with an hour of sunshine remaining and a beautiful reef break guiding us home. We threw all surfboards from the ship in the water and enjoyed sunset while riding the cleanest left that I have seen in a while.
Many would view Tabuaeran as an island paradise, and we are new converts. But this paradise is not without signs of trouble. The other reefs that we have visited have been among the worst that we have seen. The human population of the island is increasing and the major source of income may end soon, leaving the 2,500 or so inhabitants with less economic resources and more of a demand for the ocean's resources. This is the time to think more about ways to prevent degradation of a reef system, instead of conservation biology's frequent position of lamenting losses and planning for recovery. This is one goal of CMBC, to train a new generation of scientists to view problems from a biological and a socio-economic perspective. Good thing that we have brought a Scripps graduate student along, Steve Smriga, whose baseline will be set by Tabuaeran's reefs and will feel the loss all the more when he visits the more typical disturbed reefs across much of the Pacific. By sharing the beauty of a healthy reef, a reef that was common when our grandparents were children, with the rest of society, perhaps we can recalibrate our baselines to expect healthy reefs and to act when (or hopefully before) new threats emerge.
For now, the ocean around Tabuaeran is our subject for study (and our playground), and we will return soon with data, images, and stories of these island jewels that still remain nestled in the center of the Pacific Ocean.
—Dr. Stuart Sandin