Shifting Baselines: Registering the oceans' plight

When you think Chesapeake Bay, you might think of crabs served up in any number of tasty ways. If you were to travel back in time 200 years, you might have known the region better for its caviar.

That's right: caviar. From the same place that once was home to hammerhead sharks and so many water-cleaning oysters that colonial-era records describe sunken items as much as 30 feet deep being visible from the bay's surface.

Scripps Institution of Oceanography marine ecologist Jeremy Jackson immerses his audience in such perspective in a disturbing presentation he has given several times recently. Jackson has used history lessons to get the public to pay attention to an indisputable fact: The oceans as we know them are dying. Now he, fellow scientists and conservationists are getting help from Hollywood in the form of a public awareness campaign called "Shifting Baselines."

In this campaign, the term describes the gradual erosion of what people believe constitutes a pristine ocean, though the same diminishing standards could be applied to any terrestrial wilderness or way of life among peoples. The concerned parties behind Shifting Baselines -- including movie producer Gail Anne Hurd and marine biologist-turned-filmmaker Randy Olson -- want the reality of the ocean's demise to reach people conditioned to rate its health in terms of the availability of all-you-can-eat shrimp. They want to replace now-too-limited catch phrases like "Save the Whales" and "Dolphin-Safe" with action to stop the demise of entire ecosystems. Their evidence is just plain scary.

For as long as people have sailed the sea in ships, the ocean has languished under the dichotomy that it exists as both a toilet with infinite powers of absorption and as a food basket that never empties. Of the two, the former misconception is at least assailable by good visuals: oil spills that drench and kill seabirds, beaches closed because of sewage spills, chemical dumps that create algal blooms covering vast regions of water and so on.

But when Jackson and colleagues assembled their seminal study, published in the journal Science, they had to piece together scraps of information sometimes spaced hundreds of years apart. They relied in part on historical records and eyewitness accounts to portray the abundance of life in the oceans as it must have been in the past. Early explorers of the New World described seas filled with so many turtles that their numbers interfered with navigation. Old photos of the Southern California coastline show tidepools completely covered by abalone. In one early 20th century photo, an East Coast fisherman holds aloft a four-foot-long cod he just caught. He is obviously proud of the whopper he landed. Woodcuts from two centuries earlier show European fishermen with the cod they caught. Those fishes are taller than the people holding them. Because of overfishing, the average size of cod caught dropped from just over a yard before the Atlantic industry collapsed to between four and eight inches afterward.

Projections of future ecosystems include scenarios in which the dominant living marine creatures are jellyfish and bacteria, the rats and cockroaches of the ocean.

More examples of decline are contained on the group's new Web site, The before/after computer animation sequences you'll see come courtesy of special-effects giants Industrial Light and Magic, and Illusion Arts. The unusual pairing of science and the entertainment industry will use television and even comedy publicity stunts to get the public to think about the problem. A celebrity-judged show will take place in Los Angeles March 30, in which amateur comedians help offset the somber message of Shifting Baselines. With a cash prize at stake, they will riff on how their own baselines shift -- how their own standards lower, in other words.

How successful such tactics are at penetrating the public conscious remains to be seen. Tellingly, the first converts to the campaign's message are those who have already seen dramatic die-offs in their lifetimes: the commercial fishermen who can remember fish twice the size of those they catch now, the divers who remember coral reefs of 30 years ago densely populated with marine life. They grimace when first-time diving companions today marvel at the beauty of what little is left. The younger of them don't know what they're looking at are vestiges of what once was. Diminished experiences lead to diminished standards. This is how baselines shift. It takes the fast-forwarded view presented by Shifting Baselines for the ocean's problems to acquire immediacy.

A message of the campaign is that we can't wait decades to stop the damage from occurring, but another is that the oceans can come back. As farmers leave fields fallow, so too must the rest of us -- catchers and consumers of marine life -- learn to leave the ocean alone to regenerate. Recovery takes forms ranging from establishing no-fish zones to holding off on that swordfish taco. Jackson, Olson, Hurd and the rest have no delusion that such fundamental changes in the way we live will come easily.

It might be tough for the oceans' plight to register more than a blip with war on the horizon and terrorism at the back door. But at least now this problem has a face, a name and a compelling argument for action. Through Shifting Baselines, Jackson and friends have seen to that.

Monroe is senior science writer for UCSD's Scripps Institution of Oceanography Explorations magazine.

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