See the longer blog post with photos here.
This is the abridged version:
When referencing the recent catastrophic fires on the west coast and flooding on our shores, multiple news broadcasters have referred to them as ‘the new normal’. But, can something ever be normal on our planet that’s constantly changing?
This episode is the first of a series telling the story of “shifting baselines” and describing how our idea of what is “normal” often changes across generations. When it comes to environmental restoration or conservation, this means we’re missing a huge piece of knowledge. I had the unique opportunity to travel with Adventure Canada and the Explorer’s Club to Newfoundland, to interview fishermen about how a changing fish stock has influenced their lives.
When we do something like observe a change in the natural world, in order to notice or realize that some sort of change has happened, we have to have a baseline that we refer to to base this difference off of. The problem with this arises when we start to move around our baseline and change what we consider to be ‘normal’. This happens all the time, especially across different generations. Each new generation has a tendency to think that the world they are born into - and the first environment they witness - is their normal.
This concept of a changing definition or perception of what we think is ‘normal’ is called shifting baselines, which was coined by scientist Dr. Daniel Pauly in 1995. In short, our baseline of what a normal world looks like is however we first experienced it. The concept of shifting baselines gets a little tricky when you start to think about its role in natural science.
When a pond or public land is being restored, what is it being restored to? What it looked like 50 years ago? 10? 200? When we restore something, we create some sort of baseline of what we think the ecosystem or place is supposed to look like. The problem is that lots of the time, our sense of the supposed “normal” for a place stems from very recent knowledge and creates inaccurate reference points for management.
For Dr. Pauly, the failure to create a baseline representative of what a natural system looked like before major human influence was extremely evident in the fisheries industry, with cod.
The case of cod is one of the most tragic stories of shifting baselines. Dr. Pauly actually coined the term because of historical anecdotes from cod fishermen around the Grand Banks of Canada’s Newfoundland. Dr. Pauly found these historical anecdotes in a book titled “Sea of Slaughter”, written by Farley Mowat. In this book, he chronicled the destruction and depletion of the creatures on the north-eastern shore of north america, beginning with the European settlers. Some of the first Europeans to the Atlantic coast were blown away by the sheer quantity of fish they encountered, captured in quotes in this book:
“Cod were once so abundant that fishermen would say they could walk across the Atlantic on their backs”
What made these anecdotes so jarring to Dr. Pauly is because of the stark contrast to what we see today from current Newfoundland fishermen, who say they can hardly catch a reasonable amount of stock.
To understand how far we’ve come, we have to go way back to the European colonizers of Newfoundland. When they came to Newfoundland, it was not by accident. They were lured by the anecdotes from the early explorers who had seen the promise of the bounty of the sea of Newfoundland.
Cod was king. Boats of men came over to Newfoundland and the abundance of fish stocks quickly made it into a bustling port. Newfoundland was founded upon fish, and much of the culture and economy in recent times has still revolved around the fishery.
To see this, I made the trek to Newfoundland, hopped on a big boat, and circumnavigated the island. I interviewed fishermen - both retired and currently in practice. I wanted to see if they had noticed different changes over the course of their fishing careers. I wanted to see if maybe we were more cognizant of the shifting of baselines nowadays than back when it was first coined. Although their answers were laden with complications I had never originally thought off, they did all start off by speaking earnestly of the role that fishing has played in their lives and family legacy.
Cod was the foundation and the lifeblood for generations of families in Newfoundland, so much so that “in cod we trust” became a sort of national slogan. It was one of the world’s most productive fishing grounds for centuries. It was too big, some thought, to ever fail.
Yet on the infamous day of July 2nd, 1992, the Canadian government closed the Newfoundland cod industry. They imposed a moratorium, which prohibited the fishing of any cod, eliminating the jobs of 40,000 thousands of Newfoundlanders and stripping the livelihoods from countless others who relied on a booming cod industry.
They closed the industry that had been the reason for settlement there in the first place. This birthright of Newfoundlanders was taken away from them; however, the government had no choice. The stocks had been exhausted to a dangerous level, teetering on the edge of what could be a perpetual depletion. Fishermen had been, more or less, scavenging in the sea of slaughter. Because of shifting baselines, most hadn’t realized.
Listen to the next episode of the ‘shifting baselines’ series to hear how the combination of fishing technology and fisheries management added to the shifting perception of fish stock, from the voices of Newfoundland fishermen and natives.
Many Newfoundlanders have generously contributed to this story. Those featured in this episode are: Tony Oxford, Lee Tremblett, Sam and Dawn Dredge, Ceryl from Little Bay Islands. Dr. Daniel Pauly contributed his voice to explain the idea of shifting baselines.
The intro/outro music is made by Peat bogs. Additional music in this episode by Blue Dot Sessions.
& a special thank you to Adventure Canada and the Explorer’s Club, who ultimately made this series possible.