Whales, Ocean Health and Old Person Syndrome

Ever hear an older person say, with outstretched arms 'When I was a kid, fish were this big' Implying that for some reason there were more fish, and bigger fish years ago than there are today? No, it's not senility, the worlds fish have indeed gotten fewer and smaller. In fact the world's biodiversity is disappearing at an alarming rate. Some call it old person syndrome or OPS for short. While the symptoms of OPS are not clinically defined in any geriatric medicine textbook I know of, they are informally known among ecologists as 'shifting baselines.'

Shifting baselines is a phrase increasingly being used to describe the world around us. Baselines are the fundamental reference points we use to judge just about anything. They’re persistent, unhurried, hard-to-notice changes, from the disappearance of lightening bugs in the countryside to the increased drive time from Boston to New York. If your ideal weight used to be 170 pounds and now it's 180--your baseline and your waistline---has shifted.

Maintaining an accurate baseline is critical to understanding the health of our oceans for the basic reason that they give us a reference point with which to compare future information. For example, say a water sample obtained from the Hudson river earlier today contained 1% pcb’s and a hypothetical future sample still contains 1%. The person who analyzed the sample would say there is no change of the level of these toxins in the water supply, and consequentially, there is no cause for alarm. However, pcb’s are not found naturally so the actual amount of pcb that should be found in drinking water is zero. As the world’s fresh water gradually becomes increasingly polluted, mankind has slowly accepted the presence of harmful toxins so much so that the Environmental Protection Agency considers some amount actually normal!

Many scientists consider Northeast U.S. lobster a healthy and sustainable fishery; however, when viewed in larger context, one quickly learns that these fisheries drastically declined. One law, which today is only a relic of colonial times, states imprisoned criminals are not to be fed lobster more than twice a week. Excess of two servings per week is considered cruel and unusual punishment. Most view lobster as a delicacy and not a dish to be served to those in public custody.

Lobster was, in the 17th and 18th centuries, so abundant that someone on a beachfront stroll would have to make a conscious effort just to avoid stepping on them. Lobster was so plentiful that it was actually considered junk food which leads to the crustacean being forbidden to serve to prisoners more than twice per week.

Slowly, almost without notice, consumption of lobster transitioned from a staple of the poor, to a delicacy enjoyed only by the affluent. Gradually over centuries, lobster fisheries declined, and concurrently, the price of lobster meat slowly rose. In 1908, a fisherman would likely be disappointed if he only came home with two hundred pounds of lobster. A hundred years later, a fisherman would probably be quite happy if his day’s labor yielded the same amount. Each of these fishermen has a different baseline they use to determine success. The fishermen in 2008 never saw the tremendous landings which were an everyday occurrence a century ago, and as such he sees the lobster fishery only within a narrow historical context. This is what is known as a shifting baseline; failure to account for these changing baselines is detrimental to effective management and conservation of our oceans.

Criminal investigators use a similar term, known as memory decay, to describe losing one’s ability to remember details of a particular event. Memory decay can cause a suspected criminal’s false alibi, or a witness’s testimony, to gradually change. Police that incorporate memory decay into their interrogation techniques can quickly determine a suspect’s guilt or the usefulness of a witness’s testimony. Why are they able to do this?  Simple, they look at the story over a long period of time. They take notes and then reference those against notes they took earlier in the investigation.  The result is a more complete picture of the crime than they would have gotten in one sitting.

Unfortunately Japan’s Institute of Cetacean Research claims that whales have rebounded sufficiently to resume commercial whaling. That the worldwide whale populations are growing at such an alarming rate than their populations must be kept in check by whaling. This statement makes assumptions which are largely inaccurate in the larger historical context. Advocates supporting a return to commercial whaling fail to look at the long term trends in the population dynamics of whales.

Some whale populations have grown over the past 20 years, yet they remain a tiny fraction of pre-whaling population sizes of centuries ago. An example is the North Atlantic right whale, species whose population has grown tremendously over the past year. It’s estimated that this year’s calving season was one of the most productive on record. If they keep reproducing at this rate we’ll be able to take them off the endangered species list in no time! What you might not know is that only 350 or so North Atlantic right whales exist. Just a shell of their pre-whaling population, which is estimated at somewhere around 12,000 individuals. Between entanglements in fishing gear, and collisions with ships this species lingers on the brink of extinction. The successful calving season this year produced a mere 19 calves. Two have already been killed for one reason or another. On average the population grows at about 2% a year. If the population keeps growing at that pace it will take a short 650 years for right whales populations to reach the same size it was before we started hunting them. For someone that has only looked at whale populations for the past 20 years they certainly are starting to rebound, but in the larger scope of recovering to their pre-exploitation numbers we still have a long way to go.

Want to know more about shifting baselines and our oceans.  Check out the video above from the folks at the shifting baselines project at the Scripps Institute of Oceanography.

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