Great article to be brought to people’s attention. The shifting baselines syndrome applies not only to fisheries, but to all kinds of wildlife and landscapes. The baseline gets shifted, and each generation shoots for a lower and lower conservation target. For a great read that deals with the shifting baseline syndrome and how it applies to fisheries, check out “The Unnatural History of the Sea” by Callum Roberts. Thanks Dr. Ogle!
The “Shifting Baseline Syndrome” is the idea that what appears “normal” or “acceptable” shifts over time. As an example, what we now consider to be a “trophy” fish is very much different than what previous generations considered to be a “trophy” fish. NPR recently posted a story about research that examined the “big fish boards” from charter excursions in Key West, FL. The study found that the size of the “big fish” had declined dramatically in the last 50 years. See the pictures and story here for dramatic evidence (one picture is below). The scientific paper that the NPR report is based on is here.
If you’re finding this article, you likely know what a ‘trash fish’ is. Trash fish can be defined in a few different ways, but the trash fish I’d like to refer to here are fish that were traditionally considered unpalatable, unfit for human consumption, or otherwise having no market value. There is a trend in commercial fishing today to move away from overfished species, and to start targeting fish that have previously had no market. This trend isn’t necessarily born out of a desire to move towards sustainable fisheries, but instead it’s born out of the fact that there aren’t enough traditional market fish left in the ocean to make a living on.
“History is repeating itself, and what’s needed is an overall reduction in fishing pressure, not just a move to fishing for different species.”
Fishermen, restaurants, seafood distributors, and some environmental groups are working to develop new markets for fish, and they’re trying to convince consumers that these new fish are both good to eat and environmentally friendly. These ‘trash species’ include fish like the Spiny Dogfish, Sea Robin, Monkfish, and skates. The shift towards these species will reduce fishing pressure on threatened species like the Atlantic Cod, but in turn, it will turn the bulk of commercial fishing effort onto these species which have traditionally not been targeted. With many scientists doubtful of how quickly the Atlantic Cod population can recover, or if it will ever fully recover, these trash fish species may be heavily targeted for many years to come. If our commercial fishing fleet is able to nearly eliminate one species from the ecosystem, there’s no question that it could do the same to another species.
The example I’ll focus on is the relationship between the Atlantic Cod and the Spiny Dogfish. On Cape Cod in Massachusetts, the Codfish is iconic. It gave the Cape its name and its reputation, fed millions, and seemed to be an inexhaustible resource. In the 1990’s however, the species crashed, hard. A 95% decline in biomass (based on historical records) was a sobering blow to the industry. The crash was largely the result of overfishing, especially from ruthless efficiency of new fishing technologies implemented in the 1960’s. Fisheries management was thrown into a whirlwind, and proposed cuts to quotas were met with fierce opposition from fishermen and those representing fishermen. What followed was years of back and forth between fisheries management, fisheries scientists, politicians, fishermen, and environmental groups. It took over 20 years, from the Cod crash in 1992 for officials to implement meaningful quota cuts. In late 2013, federal fisheries officials signed in 77% cuts in the Gulf of Maine cod fishery, and over 50% cuts in the quota for Georges Bank (off New England). With their traditional money maker off the table, commercial fishermen on Cape Cod have been working to rebrand trash fish species. The Spiny Dogfish is on the list. Prices for the fish are still low, but as high end restaurants and seafood distributors begin to market the fish, prices are bound to rise. If you Google “trash fish dinners” you’ll find all kinds of publicized events at restaurants touting the sustainability of these new fish. These dinners have become quite fashionable on the east coast. They’re marketed at times as a panacea for the negatives of overfishing and give the impression to the attendees that by being a part of expanding the market for these fish, they’re doing their part to save the ocean.
The truth about trash fish is that we’ve been employing this ‘fishing down the ecosystem’ strategy for centuries. Luxury seafoods like lobster and oysters were once fed to prisoners and slaves, only until their populations began dwindling did they become more expensive and gain their spot on the menus of high priced restaurants. Trash fish have been turned to over and over as populations of preferred fish have been depleted. The promoters of these trash fish are missing this very important point. History is repeating itself, and what’s needed is an overall reduction in fishing pressure, not just a move to fishing for different species.