In the prologue to The Ocean of Life: The Fate of Man and the Sea, Callum Roberts describes his experience diving on the Great Barrier Reef twenty years after his initial visit. He cannot believe the changes he observes and thinks that, had someone prophesized such degradation, Roberts said he, “would probably have thought him mad.”

The well-known fisheries scientist, Daniel Pauly, coined the term, “shifting baselines syndrome” (Chapter 3) in a 1995 paper. As Pauly explains in his TED talk, this idea refers to our inability to fully understand the magnitude of observed changes in the environment because we lack information from preceding generations. Essentially: how can we know how different something is from the past, when the only reference point is our own lifespan—or, at most, a couple generations’ worth of information?

Sustainable seafood trends

Baselines are shifting down as each generation passes.

Shifting baselines syndrome is ubiquitous in today’s world, although — unsurprisingly — we often fail to notice. I recently gave an Ocean Wise sustainable seafood presentation at a retirement home in Vancouver. After my talk, one of the ladies in the audience who was about eighty years old came over and started telling me about eulachon. She said that back when she was a kid, the water under the Burrard Bridge would go shiny with oil when the eulachon came into False Creek. She said that people had to use umbrellas when they crossed the bridge to avoid getting covered in seagull guano as the birds circled above looking for fish. I was absolutely floored by her story. Largely as a result of overfishing, eulachon stocks off our coast have been in decline since the 1970s, and they are currently listed as endangered in Canada. I don’t know when eulachon last came into False Creek, but it likely hasn’t been in my lifetime; my baseline for False Creek wildlife has never included these fish. I am wondering if anyone has heard similar anecdotes about marine life or any wild creatures? Have you noticed changes in a particular natural place you’ve visited over time?

Sustainable seafood

Once prevalent in the Burrard Inlet, now eulachon have mostly disappeared. Photo Credit: James Crippen, own work.

In Chapter 10, Roberts describes some of the ways in which garbage — in particular, plastic — is impacting marine life. In reading through this, I was reminded of a very powerful video of the Laysan albatrosses on Midway Island. Dr. Peter Ross, head of the Vancouver Aquarium Marine Science Centre’s Ocean Pollution Research Program, recently co-authored a paper on the extent of microplastics in marine food webs. Although these are particles too small to see, they are just as pervasive and harmful as their larger counterparts. In the same way humans accumulate other toxins (e.g., mercury, PCBs) from our food, odds are that if we eat seafood, we’ve all ingested these tiny pollutants as well. And yet, I wonder: do people feel as strongly about microplastics and chemical contaminants as they do about larger plastics or more visible forms of ocean pollution (e.g., oil)? Do we need to see something in order to be truly cognisant of its presence and reach? If rising temperatures or carbon uptake somehow caused the ocean to turn hot pink or emit an increasingly foul odour, do you think we would we do more to mitigate the impacts of climate change?

Bird with plastic in stomach

More and more animals are dying from plastic ingestion.

In Chapter 19, Roberts suggests networks of marine reserves as a potential solution for preserving marine space and protecting sea life. Reserves are regions of the ocean where fishing and other forms of resource extraction or development are prohibited; as Roberts points out, they have been quite successful in some parts of the world. Since this is primarily a top-down approach to conservation, I am curious to hear if people think that governments and/or conservation groups have the ultimate responsibility in protecting ocean space and wildlife? On a personal level, how do you conserve the natural environment and what are some of the biggest challenges you find when it comes to making ocean-friendly choices?

Share your ideas and experiences on any of the above, or anything you come across as you read the book. Questions? Ask them! Let’s get the conversation going!

Coming up Friday August 2: Four Fish: The Future Of The Last Wild Food
by Paul Greenberg. Order online or pick up at your favourite bookstore or library!

Blog post by Laurenne Schiller, Ocean Wise research analyst and book club curator. 

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2 Responses

  1. Helen Steely

    My shifting baseline story, at age 68 is that as a child we either took the old coal fired train over a wooden trestle bridge to Wildwood, N.J. from Phila. or later drove over the wooden bridge that was next to the rail bridge. It was finally replaced with a much higher concrete and steel structure. We would pass huge miles of estuary which as a child seemed enormous. My mother would say it was pond lilies. Now that is gone as is the trestle that was lapped by the sea waves. Yea, we would have to get out of Wildwood if a hurricane was forecast because the trains could not cross the sea as the water was so close to the bridges. Most people did not use cars in the early 1950’s. I remember leaving in a hurry when Hurricane Helene (1958) was on the way. It was the last time we went to Wildwood as the relatives who had a summer home died. Over ten years later as an adult going out on a fishing boat, the estuaries were almost gone!

    • Vancouver Aquarium

      Thanks for sharing your story, Helen. I guess it’s like so many things— we don’t really notice the big changes until we go away for awhile. Advances in technology and losses in nature are particularly noticeable though I think. I was recently home at my parents’ house and went for a walk in the park I grew up beside. Over the years, the blackberry bushes there have been almost entirely removed (apparently as a safety measure to improve visibility in the park). I remember being able to pick buckets worth of berries but now, I feel like that experience will not be available for kids in their neighbourhood and they won’t have any idea about what was once there. Laurenne.


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