Shifting Baselines

Home Forums Due October 8 by 11:59pm Shifting Baselines

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    Shifting baselines is a phenomena characterized by newer generations “forgetting” the older “normal” of nature and producing their own diminished version. The progression of loss from on generation to the next is often slim and is only noticed when there is a big enough gap. However, when this gap is in fact noticed, the younger generation often dismisses the older generation’s baseline as some whimsical, age-affected nostalgia even though this was truly the norm for their lifetime. These shifting baselines make it extremely easy to ignore a gradual decline in populations. Each year catches can get lower and lower, but as the newer generation is expecting a low catch, they are unbothered by it and think that this level is how the productivity should be. In Newfoundland, northern cod were observed to be in decline as early as the 1950s, with severe warnings in the 1970s by rural fishermen. However, it wasn’t until 1992 when the moratorium was issued to ban cod fishing that anything was done about it. This is due to a shifting baseline of understanding. Cod were once seen as limitless and inexhaustible due to their numbers. Since catch was so high all the time, new fishermen didn’t think anything of the tales of depletion, and they sure weren’t going to lose a profit on a supposed fantasy. Just like Greenberg states in his book, it is easy to “doubt the existence of a cod shortage…because every time [he] dropped a jig to the bottom, a cod seemed to come up.” His expectation of fishing was influenced by his baseline, however this baseline is only a small portion of what once was. Fishermen must avoid falling into this trap of shifting baselines by looking to the past. Using older numbers and observing a change in the census is extremely important when analyzing fish populations and their sustainability. Just because a fish comes up, doesn’t mean the populations are in good shape. Fish bite even when in low numbers; some school when in low numbers. Fish being present and seemingly prosperous means nothing in terms of shortages without knowing where you are currently versus where you were in the past.


    I enjoyed reading your evaluation of the northern cod. Greenberg used a great example of how useful and important census can be when bringing up Ted Ames’ interviews with older generations and discovering a much larger area of cod spawning grounds that were previous unknown and one that the government management program being set-up would have likely, then, been excluded. That just seems to scream how useful and important it is to look at older generations when researching previous fish populations!

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Fish and Fisheries in a Changing World