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Beyond Baselines: Rethinking Priorities for Ocean Conservation

Lisa M Campbell, Nicholas School of Environment, Duke University
Noella J Gray, Nicholas School of Environment, Duke University
Elliott L Hazen, Nicholas School of Environment, Duke University
Janna M Shackeroff, Nicholas School of Environment, Duke University


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In 1995, Daniel Pauly identified a "shifting baselines syndrome" (SBS). Pauly was concerned that scientists measure ecosystem change against their personal recollections of the past and, based on this decidedly short-term view, mismanage fish stocks because they tolerate gradual and incremental elimination of species and set inappropriate recovery goals. As a concept, SBS is simple to grasp and its logic is compelling. Much current work in marine historical ecology is rationalized in part as a means of combating SBS, and the term has also resonated outside of the academy with environmental advocacy groups. Although we recognize both conceptual and operational merit in SBS, we believe that the ultimate impact of SBS on ocean management will be limited by some underlying and interrelated problematic assumptions about ecology and human–environment relations, and the prescriptions that these assumptions support. In this paper, we trace both assumptions and prescriptions through key works in the SBS literature and interrogate them via ecological and social science theory and research. We argue that an expanded discussion of SBS is needed, one that engages a broader range of social scientists, ecologists, and resource users, and that explicitly recognizes the value judgments inherent in deciding both what past ecosystems looked like and whether or not and how we might reconstruct them.

Key words

baselines; human–environment relations; interdisciplinary research; marine historical ecology

Copyright © 2009 by the author(s). Published here under license by The Resilience Alliance. This article is under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License. You may share and adapt the work for noncommercial purposes provided the original author and source are credited, you indicate whether any changes were made, and you include a link to the license.

Ecology and Society. ISSN: 1708-3087