Rapidly shifting environmental baselines among fishers of the Gulf of California

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DOI: 10.1098/rspb.2005.3175 · Source: PubMed
Shifting environmental baselines are inter-generational changes in perception of the state of the environment. As one generation replaces another, people's perceptions of what is natural change even to the extent that they no longer believe historical anecdotes of past abundance or size of species. Although widely accepted, this phenomenon has yet to be quantitatively tested. Here we survey three generations of fishers from Mexico's Gulf of California (N=108), where fish populations have declined steeply over the last 60 years, to investigate how far and fast their environmental baselines are shifting. Compared to young fishers, old fishers named five times as many species and four times as many fishing sites as once being abundant/productive but now depleted (Kruskal-Wallis tests, both p<0.001) with no evidence of a slowdown in rates of loss experienced by younger compared to older generations (Kruskal-Wallis test, n.s. in both cases). Old fishers caught up to 25 times as many Gulf grouper Mycteroperca jordani as young fishers on their best ever fishing day (regression r(2)=0.62, p<0.001). Despite times of plentiful large fish still being within living memory, few young fishers appreciated that large species had ever been common or nearshore sites productive. Such rapid shifts in perception of what is natural help explain why society is tolerant of the creeping loss of biodiversity. They imply a large educational hurdle in efforts to reset expectations and targets for conservation.


Rapidly shifting environmental baselines
among fishers of the Gulf of California
Andrea Sa
, Callum M. Roberts
, Jorge Torre
Micheline Carin
and Roberto R. Enrı
Environment Department, University of York, York, YO10 5DD, UK
Comunidad y Biodiversidad A.C., Bahı
a de Bacochibampo, S/N Colonia Lomas de Corte
s, Guaymas,
85450, Sonora, Mexico
noma de Baja California Sur, A
rea Interdisciplinaria de Ciencias Sociales, Apartado Postal 19 -B,
La Paz, 23080 Baja California Sur, Mexico
Facultad de Ciencias Marinas, Universidad Auto
noma de Baja California, Apartado Postal 453,
Ensenada 22870, Baja California, Mexico
Shifting environmental baselines are inter-generational changes in perception of the state of the
environment. As one generation replaces another, people’s perceptions of what is natural change even to
the extent that they no longer believe historical anecdotes of past abundance or size of species. Although
widely accepted, this phenomenon has yet to be quantitatively tested. Here we survey three generations of
fishers from Mexico’s Gulf of California (NZ108), where fish populations have declined steeply over the
last 60 years, to investigate how far and fast their environmental baselines are shifting. Compared to young
fishers, old fishers named five times as many species and four times as many fishing sites as once being
abundant/productive but now depleted (Kruskal–Wallis tests, both p!0.001) with no evidence of a
slowdown in rates of loss experienced by younger compared to older generations (Kruskal–Wallis test, n.s.
in both cases). Old fishers caught up to 25 times as many Gulf grouper Mycteroperca jordani as young fishers
on their best ever fishing day (regression r
Z0.62, p!0.001). Despite times of plentiful large fish still being
within living memory, few young fishers appreciated that large species had ever been common or nearshore
sites productive. Such rapid shifts in perception of what is natural help explain why society is tolerant of the
creeping loss of biodiversity. They imply a large educational hurdle in efforts to reset expectations and
targets for conservation.
Keywords: overfishing; historical ecology; biodiversity loss; fishing; fisheries
In 1995, Pauly described the phenomenon of shifting
environmental baselines, noting that each generation of
scientists subconsciously views as ‘natural’ the way the
environment appeared in their youth (Pauly 1995).
Although he described shifting baselines in relation to
fisheries science, the phenomenon is general and applies to
all sectors of society. As one generation replaces another,
people’s perspectives change such that they fail to
appreciate the extent of past environmental modifications
by humanity. Much of the evidence for shifting baselines is
anecdotal. For example, an idea of the former abundance
of whales in the Atlantic can be gained from the account of
George Shelvocke. Sailing along the coast of South
America in 1718 he wrote
whales, grampuses, and other fish of a monstrous bulk,
are in such numbers off the coast of Patagonia that they
were really offensive to us very often. For they would
come sometimes so close to us as to stifle us with their
stench when they blew, and would lie so near us that
I have frequently thought it impossible to escape
striking upon them on every send of a sea.
(Shelvocke 1726,p.36)
Recent genetic studies reveal much greater abundance
of whales in the Atlantic than historical estimates
suggested (Roman & Palumbi 2003), lending new
credibility to Shelvocke’s observations.
A second more recent example comes from a study of
data from research vessels surveying for new tuna fishing
grounds in the late 1950s in the Gulf of Mexico.
Comparison of their catch records with recent surveys
found that the current population of the oceanic whitetip
shark Carcharhinus longimanus may be less than 1% of
what it was in the 1950s (Baum & Myers 2004). The
researchers noted that the phenomenon of the shifting
baseline has acted within the Gulf of Mexico scientific
community to such an extent that papers on sharks in the
area showed no recognition of the oceanic whitetip shark’s
former presence and abundance in the ecosystem.
Although the concept of shifting baselines is receiving
growing scientific and popular recognition (Dayton et al.
1998; Myers & Worm 2003; Roberts 2003; Baum &
Myers 2004; see footnote 1), we are unaware of any
quantitative tests in the field. Here we put the concept to
the test among fishers from the Gulf of California, a semi-
enclosed sea in northwest Mexico. The Gulf of California
is a place of exceptional biodiversity (Brusca et al. in press)
and conservation importance (Sala et al. 2002). It is rich in
endemic species (Roberts et al. 2002) and is one of the few
Proc. R. Soc. B (2005) 272, 1957–1962
Published online 2 August 2005
* Author for correspondence (cr10@york.ac.uk).
Received 3 February 2005
Accepted 24 May 2005
1957 q 2005 The Royal Society
places in the world where we can still find large
concentrations of marine megafauna such as hammerhead
sharks (Sphyraenidae), manta rays (Mobulidae), billfish
(Istiophoriidae and Xiphiidae) and cetaceans. In contrast
to ecosystems such as the North Sea (Wolff 2000;
Christensen et al. 2003)ortheCaribbean(Jackson
1997) where the megafauna was depleted long ago,
fisheries have only recently intensified in the Gulf of
California (Poder Ejecutivo Federal 2000), threatening
the megafauna which is now in rapid decline. This
provides a natural laboratory to study how humans
perceive changes in the natural environment.
We interviewed 108 fishers selected randomly from three
generations in 11 fishing communities of central Baja
California: young (15–30 years old, NZ40), middle-aged
(31–54, NZ34), and old (more than 55, NZ34). To elicit
fishers’ perceptions of how fishing has altered the marine
environment, we asked them to name species and places that
they considered to have been depleted by fishing. Given that
fishers use common names for species, and some names differ
among communities, we used fish guides and photographs to
clarify species identifications during the interviews (Kerstitch
1989; Fisher et al. 1995; Allen & Robertson 1998; Gotshall
1998; Thomson et al. 2000).
We also questioned them about the fishery for the Gulf
grouper, Mycteroperca jordani. Specifically, we asked fishers
about the best catch they ever remembered landing, the
largest animal they ever caught, and the year in which these
catches were made. We asked them to draw on the ground or
on a wall the length of the largest fish they had ever caught.
This was then measured to the nearest centimetre and
converted to biomass using a length–weight relationship for
Mycteroperca species. Breeding populations of this grouper,
which can reach approximately 2 m in length, are restricted to
the northeastern Mexican Pacific. Attributes such as large
body size and a restricted geographic range make a species
vulnerable to overfishing and even extinction (Morris et al.
2000; Reynolds et al. 2001). Once abundant, the Gulf
grouper is now rare and is listed as Vulnerable in the World
(Hudson & Mace 1996). Our own historical research, based
on fishers’ anecdotes, systematic documentation of natural-
ists’ observations and grey literature, suggests that today’s
population is at most a few percent of the size of that present
in the 1940s (Sa
enz-Arroyo et al. 2005).
Interviews were conducted from May to September 2002.
To avoid results being influenced by biogeographic differ-
ences in species composition and abundance, we conducted
interviews exclusively in the central Gulf of California, one of
the three biogeographic regions of the sea defined by Walker
(1960). We followed technical and ethical recommendations
in Bunce et al. (2000), who provide detailed advice on
conducting respectful interviews acknowledging local cus-
toms and culture, and minimizing disruption to people’s
routines. They also give guidelines on sample size considering
the trade-offs in resources available (time, personnel and
money) and the goal of achieving a representative sample of
adequate size. Our questionnaire was answered by between 5
and 25% of the fishing population in each of 11 localities
visited, with the figure depending on size of the fishing village.
determined from data in the State Population Census
(INEGI 2002). To approximate randomization, the ques-
tionnaire was applied at random to fishers we met on the
beach in each community until the appropriate sample size
for each age category was reached. All interviews were
conducted in private. We visited old retired fishers in their
homes after asking younger fishers where to find them (see
Electronic Appendix for questionnaire and further sampling
details). Data were tested for normality prior to analysis and
non-parametric statistics used where necessary.
Our results show that, although the majority of fishers
interviewed (84%) considered that fishing had led to
depletion or loss of some species or fishing sites, analysis of
their answers reveals a rapid inter-generational shift in
their perception of how the seascape looked in the past.
number of sites
mentioned as depleted
age class
coastal/offshore index
number of species
mentioned as depleted
young middle-aged old
Figure 1. (a) Number of species mentioned by each generation
of fishers as depleted (Kruskal–Wallis test, c
Z 37.7,
p!0.001). Boxes show median, 5, 25, 50 and 95th percentiles
of the data; dots show range. (b) Number of sites mentioned by
each generation of fishers as depleted (Kruskal–Wallis test,
Z39.0, p!0.001). (c) Sites mentioned as depleted were
coded as coastal (1) or offshore (2). Mean scores (C95% CI)
show a significant shift from the mention of mainly coastal sites
by old fishers to more offshore sites amongst the young
generation (Kruskal–Wallis test, c
Z12.0, pZ0.002). In total,
old fishers listed 95 sites as depleted by fishing, middle-aged
fishers 72 sites and young fishers 40 sites.
1958 A. Sa
enz-Arroyo and others Rapidly shifting environmental baselines
Proc. R. Soc. B (2005)
The median number of species mentioned by old fishers as
depleted was 11, middle-aged mentioned seven and young
fishers two (figure 1a; Kruskal–Wallis test, c
p!0.001). Since older fishers have had more opportunity
to see species loss, we calculated rates of loss by dividing
the number of species mentioned by the number of years
fishing by each respondent. There was no significant
difference in loss rate across generations, indicating no
slow down in biodiversity decline (Kruskal–Wallis test,
Z2.00, pZ0.37).
Old fishers remembered times when large and vulner-
able animals were much more abundant, as were easily
overexploited invertebrates (table 1). These people began
fishing when the sea supported abundant medium-sized
sharks like the bull shark (Carcharinus leucas), hammer-
heads (Sphyrna spp.), large groupers (e.g. M. jordani ),
large snappers (e.g. Lutjanus novemfasciatus), Pacific green
turtle (Chelonia mydas agassisii ) and large edible invert-
ebrates such as the purple lip rock oyster (Spondylus
calcifer) and Cortez conch (Strombus galeatus). They
testified how these populations were depleted over the
years in which they worked. By contrast middle-aged
fishers showed less appreciation of past abundances and
few young fishers seemed aware that such species had ever
been common (table 1).
Although old fishers recalled an ecosystem in a better
condition than that experienced by young fishers, their
baselines also appeared shifted from what early Europeans
visiting the area witnessed. Few old fishers commented on
the once valuable fishery for pearl oysters (Pinctada
mazatlanica; Carin
o-Olvera 2000), abundant and exten-
sive from the beginning of the seventeenth century to
1940 when the pearl banks collapsed (Monteforte &
o-Olvera 1992; Carin
o-Olvera 2000). None of their
testimonies fitted with the seascape observed by seven-
teenth century Spaniards such as Nicola
s de Cardona who
along the seacoast of the interior region, over a distance
of 100 leagues all that one sees are heaps of pearl
(Cardona 1632, p. 99)
Few also mentioned as depleted the largest predators
such as the white shark (Carcharodon carcharias) and
goliath grouper (Epinephelus itajara), the latter a well
documented and common meal of seventeenth and
eighteenth century buccaneers who haunted the area
(Dampier 1697).
Shifting perspectives were also evident across the three
generations in the sites mentioned as being depleted by
fishing. The median number of sites reported as depleted
by old fishers was 4.5, by middle-aged fishers 2 and young
fishers 1 (figure 1b, Kruskal–Wallis test, c
p!0.001). Again, converting these data to sites depleted
by year of fishing experience of respondents, there was no
evidence in a slow down of the rate of depletion across
generations (Kruskal–Wallis test, c
Z1.2, pZ0.54). In
total, old fishers named 95 sites as depleted, middle-aged
72 and young fishers 40.
We plotted on maps all sites mentioned as once being
productive and now depleted and coded them as coastal,
or offshore (seamounts) (figure 1c). There was a
significant inter-generational shift from the mention of
nearshore to offshore sites (Kruskal–Wallis test, c
pZ0.002). There was a time when fishers could land large
catches and big fish from sites close to shore. As fishing
depleted those sites fishers moved further offshore.
Amongst younger fishers, many did not realize that
nearshore sites had once been more productive, since
few mentioned them as depleted. However, they were
concerned about more recent impacts of fishing in offshore
Large predators, such as the Gulf grouper, were once
common in the area but appeared to exist now only in
historical documents and the memories of old fishers.
Table 1. The percentages of respondents from three generations of fishers that considered populations of different exploited
species to have been depleted by fishing.
length (cm)
value in
31–54 years,
value in
old R55
value in
sharks largeY white shark (Carcharodon carcharias) 800 0 2 0
small tiger shark (Galeocerdo cuvieri ) 740 2 6 14
bull shark (Carcharhinus leucas) 350 2 0 32
hammerhead shark (Sphyrna spp.) 150–450 7 9 32
blacktip shark (Carcharhinus limbatus) 247 7 9 32
coastal groupers
largeY goliath grouper (Epinephelus itajara) 240 0 15 8
small gulf grouper (Mycteroperca jordani ) 190 10 56 85
leopard grouper (Mycteroperca rosacea) 100 37 76 67
coastal snappers
largeY dog snapper (Lutjanus novemfasciatus) 170 7 29 47
small barred pargo (Hoplopagrus guentherii )92101835
yellow snapper (Lutjanus argentiventris) 66 5 17 12
turtles pacific green turtle (Chelonia mydas agassissi ) 117 (carapace) 20 32 62
invertebrates pearl oyster (Pinctada mazatlanica) n.a. 0 3 18
purple lip rock oyster (Spondylus calcifer) n.a. 7 20 23
cortez conch (Strombus galeatus) n.a. 2 26 35
pinto spiny lobster (Panulirus inflatus) n.a. 13 29 32
Rapidly shifting environmental baselines A. Sa
enz-Arroyo and others 1959
Proc. R. Soc. B (2005)
Descriptions by early twentieth century naturalists portray
a seascape where Gulf groupers dominated the reef
ecosystem (Sa
enz-Arroyo et al. in press). In 1932 the
naturalist Griffing Bancroft wrote of Gulf groupers from
San Idelfonso Island in the central Gulf of California
In unimaginable numbers, from one edge to the other,
Garopuas (sic) haunt the rocky ledges of coast and
islands. If a jigger is trolled at a speed of about four
miles an hour over the proper bottom there is no
question of catching something, the only gamble is in
species and size. The slogan ‘a ton an hour’ can often be
(Bancroft 1932, pp. 250–251)
Richard Crocker of the California Division of Fish and
Game concurred, writing in 1937 ‘Sport fishermen who
angle in Mexican waters encounter no difficulty in
catching their fill of the abundant cabrilla and grouper.
In fact they find it virtually impossible to catch anything
else along the rocky shores inhabited by these voracious
and unwary fish that will strike at any moving object
smaller than themselves’.
Contemporary photographs
also picture smiling fishers sporting giant catches (Kira
1999; figure 2), and many other historical documents
agree that this species, which is a rarity today, was once
incredibly abundant (Sa
enz-Arroyo et al. in press).
Only the oldest fishers we interviewed had experienced
the heyday of fishing for giant groupers. We asked fishers
what had been their best ever day’s catch of the Gulf
grouper and when they caught it. In the 1940s and 1950s
fishers recalled catching up to 25 fish in a day (figure 3a),
by the 1960s this had dropped to 10 or 12, and by the
1990s it was one or two. We can also see a shifting baseline
in the fraction of fishers from each generation who had
ever caught a Gulf grouper. While 96% of old fishers and
90% of middle-aged fishers had caught the species, only
45% of young fishers had. Accepting that younger fishers
had had less time to catch the species, it does however
provide a context for the finding (table 1) that only 10% of
young fishers considered the species depleted compared to
56% of middle-aged and 85% of older fishers. We also
asked fishers how big the largest Gulf grouper they had
landed was and when was it caught. Again, experiences
were significantly different across generations (figure 3b).
The average size of the largest fish ever caught by old
fishers, estimated from a length–weight relationship, was
84 kg, by middle-aged 72 kg and by young fishers 63 kg.
This result is not simply an artefact of older fishers being
more skilled or having fished for longer. A regression of the
year in which fishers recalled landing their largest fish
against the size of the fish shows that the biggest fish really
are disappearing (figure 3c).
Like Pandora’s box, which when opened allows all
human’s miseries to escape, the shifting baselines
syndrome spreads insidiously, challenging much of our
knowledge of species biogeography, past ranges of
distribution, original population numbers and the ecosys-
tem roles played by species in the past (Jackson et al. 2001;
Pitcher 2001; Baum et al. 2003; Christensen et al. 2003;
Myers & Worm 2003; Baum & Myers 2004). This
condition not only concerns the scientific community,
but also affects all of society. For example, few
Californians are aware that the bear in their flag was
exterminated by humans long ago (Diamond 1992); nor
have we pondered on how abundant the now threatened
golden eagle (Aquila chrysaetos) must have been in central
pre-hispanic Me
xico for it to become the symbol of the
Mexican culture (de la Garza 1996).
The speed with which environmental baselines are
shifting among fishers of the Gulf of California is
troubling. We might expect environmental baselines to
be changing in today’s more urbanized populations who
have less direct contact with nature than past generations.
However, it is evident that baselines shift rapidly even
among people whose occupations bring them into daily
contact with nature. Such rapid shifts help explain why
human societies are so tolerant to the creeping loss of
biodiversity. Compared to many other parts of the world
where the marine megafauna was depleted perhaps
hundreds of years ago (Wolff 2000; Jackson et al. 2001;
Figure 2. Photograph of two fishers hauling a good-sized Gulf grouper. Although the photograph is not dated, the harpoon, the
canoe and fishers’ clothes characterize the middle of last century. Reproduced with kind permission of Gene Kira (Kira 1999).
1960 A. Sa
enz-Arroyo and others Rapidly shifting environmental baselines
Proc. R. Soc. B (2005)
Pitcher 2001), loss of megafauna in the Gulf of California
is still within living memory. Many of the young fishers we
interviewed came from fishing families. Despite having
older family members who remembered the past abun-
dances of large fish, that knowledge does not seem to have
been passed on, or young people have not appreciated its
When we explained to fishers why their memories were
important to our study, they were happy to collaborate.
When the generation of people that began fishing in the
1940s have died, their insight into how the environment
once looked will be gone forever. Although it is still
challenging to incorporate traditional knowledge into
scientific analyses (Huntington 2000; Johannes et al.
2000), that knowledge can offer important insights into
the former state of ecosystems (Johannes 1981), especially
in countries where written records are sparse. Passing on
that knowledge to younger generations is critical to slow
the process of shifting environmental baselines, particu-
larly in developing countries that have populations which
are highly skewed towards young people. In Mexico, for
example, 66% of the population is under 30 years old
(INEGI 2000). Most of these young people have no
experience or understanding of previous ecosystem states
even in the relatively recent past. This implies an
enormous educational hurdle to overcome in efforts to
promote conservation and set appropriate targets for
restoration of depleted and degraded environments,
whether they are on land or in the sea.
We thank Consejo Nacional de Ciencia y Tecnologı
xico (CONACYT), The Pew Charitable Trusts and
Comunidad y Biodiversidad A.C. for supporting this
research. D. Raffaelli and J. Lovett gave helpful advice on
methodology. Logistic support from Parque Nacional Bahı
de Loreto, Sociedad de Historia Natural Niparaja
and Area
de Proteccion de Flora y Fauna—Islas del Golfo de California
in Baja California Sur, was invaluable. M. Mandujano, A.
Castro, K. Pela
ez. A. Eslima
n and E. Castan
n helped with
fieldwork. V. Perez-Cirera and J. Hawkins revised and
improved the final manuscript.
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    • "In cases where entrenched paradigms or shifted baselines exist, a historical perspective can provide important data to inform local communities and decision-makers of the magnitude of changes that have occurred. Communicating the experience of older fishers can also play an important role in combating such paradigms, as older fishers are likely to have experienced more striking declines than younger fishers (Beaudreau and Levin, 2014; S aenz-Arroyo et al., 2005). "
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    • "legal right (Cinti et al. 2009 , 2010 ; Basurto et al. 2012 ). As a result, the fi sheries of northwestern Mexico are generally characterized by de facto open-access (Cint et al. 2009 ) and it is increasingly evident that these regional small-scale fi sheries and associated ecosystems are in decline (Sala et al. 2004 ; Saenz-Arroyo et al. 2005 ; OECD 2006 ; Lluch-Cota et al. 2007 ; Peckham et al. 2007 ; Sagarin et al. 2008 ). However, there are documented examples of fi shers who have continued to sustain collective action, through enduring self-governance or co-management regimes, despite being embedded in a larger system characterized by illegality and corruption ( Basurto 2005 ; Ponce-Díaz et al. 2009b ; Basurto and Speer 2012 ; McCay et al. 2014 ). "
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