Shifting Baselines: Understanding the Past to Manage for the Future

marine biology

Marine ecology is a young science, with few descriptive studies extending back for more than a century. Thus, until recently, marine ecologists have tried to explain patterns of distribution and abundance based on short-term experiments and ‘real time’ observations. This short-sightedness has resulted in studying ecological states that were already degraded, yet believing that they were pristine.

The situation is even worse for fisheries science, a discipline that has long suffered from lack of historical reflection. In 1995 Dr. Daniel Pauly coined the term “shifting baseline syndrome” to describe the incremental lowering of standards, with respect to fisheries, so that each new generation redefines what is ‘natural’ according to personal experience and looses sight of how the environment used to be. Baselines are reference points from which to evaluate changes in the health of populations, communities, and ecosystems. When these reference points shift, they result in lowered expectations for natural abundances of marine animals and the ecosystem services they provide. Populations of fishes, large vertebrates, and marine mammals thought to persist in healthy numbers today may, in fact, be small fractions of their historical abundances. Historical accounts from the 1700s and early 1800s often mention seas teeming with large fish, yet accounts like these are virtually unheard of today.

Shifting baselines are manifest in many examples throughout the world, but are especially notable in the Arabian Gulf. Rapid changes from numerous large-scale development projects, coupled with overfishing and pollution make it difficult to discern natural from anthropogenic changes. Furthermore, logistic constraints in the form of confidential studies (due to alleged commercial or security reasons) and too little sharing of environmental information among agencies, only serve to further hinder our understanding. This is one of the main reasons why Gulf marine ecosystems are so poorly understood, why synergetic impacts are misidentified, and why cumulative trans-boundary impacts are rarely considered.

One of the most critical issues of the coming decade is the degree to which the Arabian Gulf can absorb additional disturbance, while continuing to provide ecosystem services. Ecosystem services are benefits that humans gain from ecosystem processes and resources, such as cleaning drinking water and carbon sequestration. They are a useful tool for assessing ecological robustness, but because no empirical studies in the region have incorporated historical data, these studies provide scant scientific reference value. For example, construction projects near or on Gulf coral reefs may be preceded by impact studies, but the present condition of ecosystems is so distorted that the studies provide little meaningful value.

In order to set appropriate management targets for the restoration and management of coastal ecosystems, retrospective data are necessary to help clarify the underlying causes and rates of ecological change. Within the field of historical marine ecology, methods have been developed to join historical narratives with traditional ecological analyses in order to better understand the long-term trajectories and causes of ecosystem change. By scouring archives, museums, archaeological and palaeontological records, scientists have revealed surprising findings about the state of past marine ecosystem and have increased our collective impact on marine resource management.

This article was published by en.v as part of a series of articles under Dow’s Marine Conservation Program, an initiative dedicated to marine conservation and the protection of Kuwait’s rich marine ecosystem. See more at