Guilty Planet

I know that the year is far from over, but Loren McClenachan, who works with Jeremy Jackson at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, has what I believe is the shifting baselines story of 2009.

Just to review from the old shifting baselines days, the shifting baselines syndrome implies that there is some sort of change through time (e.g. a population decline) and that that change must have been forgotten, and this leads to collective amnesia of what is natural or pristine. Pauly outlined this idea in his paper in 1995 and then called for the incorporation of unconventional data sources (e.g. anecdotes, photographs, old menus) into scientific analysis.

Bam. That is exactly what McClenachan did by Documenting Loss of Large Trophy Fish from the Florida Keys with Historical Photographs, which is ‘in press’ at Conservation Biology.

Methods:
Data are sparse for most analysis into long-term population trends. But, sport fishermen love to be photographed with their catch. Using historical photographs taken in Key West, Florida, from 1956 to 2007, McClenachan examined the mean individual size and species composition for 13 groups of recreationally caught “trophy” reef fish. Thanks to Loren, you can check some of them out here…

Photos of fish caught between 1956-1960 (photo credits: Monroe County Library):

i-04bcbdfcfeb46f907d9c04e054b718e5-Florida1950s.jpg

i-2523e1d532575f04898a2c730d8d7b21-Florida1950s2.jpg

Photos of fish caught between 1965-1979 (photo credits: Monroe County Library):

i-3e7cf67a4ae239d001365e411af0f4cb-Florida1970s.jpg
i-0b0c4cf33f8106cc7f3be8b47ec0ee01-Florida1970s2.jpg

Photos of fish caught between 1980-1985 (photo credits: Monroe County Library):

i-c77ee42524ec38fc06006e4563da7fdf-Florida1980s.jpg
i-6cb20110842fe149bcf410d9b38d9f0a-Florida1980s2.jpg

Photos of fish caught in 2007 (photo credit: Loren McClenachan):

i-a6b18664143cc6957e1bc9e794b318ad-Florida2007.jpg

Results:
After those photographs, I need not tell you what happened. But here are the specifics: the measurements show that the mean length of trophy fish has declined (91.7 cm to 42.4 cm), mean weight has also declined (19.9 kg to 2.3 kg), and the species composition has changed (large groupers and predatory fishes to snappers). The average length of sharks declined by more than 50% over 50 years. On top of that, the price for fishing trip remains the same so consumers are still paying even though the fishing is far from the good old days.

(And, just in case there is the inclination to think that regulations are responsible for the change in species composition, she did the analysis both ways–with and without the fish that are now illegal to catch. Fig 2b in her paper has the results excluding all the illegals.)

And it gets even worse. As McClenachan writes:

These results provide evidence of major changes over the last half-century and a window into an earlier, less disturbed reef fish community, but communities of coral reef fish of the Florida Keys in the 1950s were themselves not undisturbed. Commercial fishing for reef sharks in the 1930s and 1940s reduced shark populations before the 1950s, and large groupers have been commercially fished since at least the 1880s.

So, like it or not, the Florida Keys are a heavily degraded ecosystem. The question now is: what to do about it?

Comments

  1. #1 Wendy
    April 27, 2009

    That is so sad. :(

  2. #2 Amy Larimer
    April 27, 2009

    Some of those photos show entirely different species, some of which are no longer allowed to be caught. You can’t really compare average size of different species. The link to the paper is not working so I can’t tell what the methods actually were but I am not sure this is a scientifically valid method. How do you account for changes in regulations over the years? Some of those large grouper (Goliath grouper, the largest species of grouper) can no longer be harvested, due to overfishing. Red snapper are severely restricted in the numbers that can be harvested (federal law allows 2 or 3; state laws may differ from that). So it would seem that for many reasons, photos from different eras are not comparable as a measurement tool.

    I know that many fish species are currently overfished and that fish being harvested now are smaller on average but that data is from actual fishery surveys, not photographs.

  3. #3 Mike Hirshfield
    April 27, 2009

    Thanks Jennifer for posting this, I’d say it may be the SB story of the millenium so far (a picture is worth 1000 etc…). Glad to see you’ve still got a soft spot for SB (maybe you feel guilty?). Whatever the explanation, congrats on the new blog, I look forward to following it.

  4. #4 Jeb, FCD
    April 27, 2009

    Amy,

    You really should read the entire post before commenting.

  5. #5 Thomas
    April 28, 2009

    I remember being on a dive boat in Florida 1990. Some wanted to spearfish the rest of us didn’t. The dive masters chose to let the fishers dive first so the rest of us wouldn’t have scared the fish away. The rest of us got the privilege of seeing the fish on the deck, the water was empty of large fish by the time we got down.

  6. #6 Blind Squirrel FCD
    April 28, 2009

    what to do about it?

    Restore all the “cuts” that were filled in during the construction of the railroad, stop the flow of fertilizer from south Florida that causes the permanent dead zone and park a big hurricane over the back country side to flush out all the accumulated gunk.

    Never gonna happen.

    BS

  7. #7 Rob
    April 30, 2009

    Could we use the same shifting-baselines idea to reduce the amount of fishing in the keys? Maybe a small reduction in the fishing licenses granted every two years or so, not enough to at one time to cause a strong response but enough over time to reduce the amount of fishing.

    Or is it too late for that? I just see the fishing tourism industry having a major fit if/when they lose business due to a reduced number of licenses.

    Just found your blog and subscribed to your RSS feed. Thanks!

  8. #8 Russs
    May 5, 2009

    Where are the pictures of the goldfish tank at the WAL*Mart down there? Make sure to get the final photo of the Guppies or maybe some Artimia

  9. #9 Dag Hjermann
    May 6, 2009

    Amy,
    good comments (considering you were not able to read the paper). However, the authors acknowledge that this is not a shift in the species-specific size:
    “with the exception of sharks, declines in size of trophy fish caught in the recreational fishery were due to shifts in composition of landings rather than declines in mean size of individuals within groups”
    (and also for sharks, there was a change in species composition from large species, such as hammerhead and great white, to smaller species)

    However, there is still a great ecological effect of removing large species from the ecosystem. They also took into account changes in fishing restrictions:
    “Even when species with current fishing restrictions — such as Nassau grouper (Epinephelus striatus), goliath grouper (E. itajara), and sawfish (Pristis spp.)—were excluded from the analyses, significant (less than 0.01) declines in individual size were detected”

    If you look for changes in individual species, have a look at for instance the following (a little PR for my own research…):
    http://www3.interscience.wiley.com/journal/118597674/abstract

  10. #10 joanne teixeira
    May 6, 2009

    This is sad issue that most people continue to ignore. I have been living here for the past 30 years and I have seen changes in the water quality from turquoise to brown green and the visabilty has decreased by 75 %. It wasn’t uncommmon to drift fish and catch 4-5 grouper 6-12 pounds in a in a single morning of fishing. Who knows what the culprit is. I think we need to stop polution from fertilizers(big sugar),from local leaking septic tanks and street storm run off into the ocean. Also I think we need to limit the catch of certain fish and put limits on lobster licenses. I would also like to stop the opening of sportsmans lobster season. This is just an open rape and pillage of our local waters. These are some of the polutants I believe contributing.

  11. #11 eScienceCommons
    June 8, 2009

    We all need to remember our origins. Check out this video, “Your mama was a lobe-finned fish” http://www.emory.edu/esciencecommons

  12. #12 Paul
    October 10, 2009

    As with any resource, if allowed to be over harvested by the powers that be, it will in time diminish. The problem is with the regulators, as they allow the commercial fishery to catch an inordinate amount of the resource, and claim the recreational fishermen are the problem. All of the regulatory groups are manned by commercial fishermen, with no regard for the fishery. As one species is decimated, they simply shift to another. Until we realize that the fish belong to all of us and are not there for the profit of a few, we will continue to allow the fox to set the rules for the henhouse.
    As with the freshwater fish and game in the U.S., we must regulate the take for the larger number of people to use. The value of a sport caught fish to our sagging economy is more than 10 times that of a commercial fish. Snorkelers, divers and tourists bring more to the economy than commercial fisherman can ever hope to.

  13. #13 jim
    October 15, 2009

    I think a pertinent question in the “what to do about it?” category would be: Can ecosystems go back, or once the shift (or ‘damage’ if you like) has happened is it just a new ecosystem? This is important because if it cannot go back then this provides a great cautionary tale for how other more pristine areas should be managed with much more precaution, but if the ecosystem can recover over time after say a moratorium or establishment of MPAs then management could remain less precautionary and take far more risk.

  14. #14 JimZ
    May 19, 2010

    It seems that some of these people making shallow comments (and you know who you are) are missing the point of this article.

    [1] Whether it is a decline in the fish species around the panhandle state and the Keys, and/or due to pollution, the point is there is major problem.
    [2] If anyone is truly interested, the Internet has a load of solid research papers available for FREE that indicate that fish species on a whole are in a major decline, especially human-eating edible fish, due to overfishing and illegal species fishing.
    [3] Many countries, i.e. Italy, France, New Zealand, Australia, and Japan are major contributors to the overfishing because it is a major industry.

    When you get down to it, it always leads back to profit, and the counter-intuitive thought process of most humans that decide to turn a blind-eye to all this.

  15. #15 ecofreak
    July 10, 2010

    I notice JimZ you are using New Zealand and Australia as references to the major contributors, sad you don’t have all the facts, both Australia and New Zealand have the issues of people coming from other countries and depleting fish stocks as they do not have the same protection of the coast that many other do. Australian Fishing is sustainable both commercial and recreational. At present Australia has currently 65 Million hectares of marine protected waters, and more than 1/3 of the worlds marine protected areas in their region. I do agree that there is serious decline in some fish stocks but I can not with good conscience blame it on over fishing, there are many environmental factors to take into account before even considering that it has to do with over fishing. Going by the photo’s above one would think that a pattern was forming but from my experience most recreational fishermen these days have their photo with the big fish at sea and release the fish live to encourage spawn recruitment and species development. Fishermen are becoming more educated in sustainable practices and have contributed to the increase in fish stocks and sizes in my area and I am proud to say that I was part of it.

  16. #16 Gain Max
    December 13, 2010

    remember being on a dive boat in Florida 1990. Some wanted to spearfish the rest of us didn’t. The dive masters chose to let the fishers dive first so the rest of us wouldn’t have scared the fish away. The rest of us got the privilege of seeing the fish on the deck, the water was empty of large fish by the time we got down.

  17. #17 orjin yüz bakım seti
    December 28, 2010

    remember being on a dive boat in Florida 1990. Some wanted to spearfish the rest of us didn’t. The dive masters chose to let the fishers dive first so the rest of us wouldn’t have scared the fish away. The rest of us got the privilege of seeing the fish on the deck, the water was empty of large fish by the time we got down

  18. #18 Anonymous
    January 5, 2011

    As a child in Key West in 1959, I saw the huge sea bass, grouper, marlin, and sharks being caught. I even worked cleaning a charter boat in the early 60s. Dredging of the mud flats and coral reefs, the scuba divers ravaging of species like cowry and conch, and our own taking of lobster with burlap bags and a glove, were taking too much exactly then.

    The taking of invertebrates, and of fish for dried trinkets was odious to me – I looked at the tourist stalls filled with dried seahorses, shells of all kinds, shark teeth, and corals.

    When the navy moved out, it was time to put in place protected areas, on land and sea, time to limit fishing license, especially every form of commercial fishing, including sport fishing.

    Yet, the baseline was visibly moving only to the young, not yet involved in life-as-economic-gain.

    Your mission is to end the worship of economic growth, and measurement of quality of life by such standards. We had little then, but camped out on small islands with little or no material possessions, swam without paraphernalia, except goggles, snorkels, and swim fins.
    The world was exciting with the wonder and mystery of playing with octopi (I still will not countenance eating one, as they seemed so intelligent and responsive). I suddenly stopped shark fishing, as the killing because of fear or trophy “skill” suddenly struck me as disgusting, in early teen age.

    I was alone in my wish that the living beings of the sea should be treasured – even my brother called me”Albert Schweitzer” (although Al killed snakes with pleasure, while I protect rattlers and scorpions from those who would kill these necessary keystones).

    I have often described moving baseline syndrome in conversation, for years, before at this moment discovering your blog.
    Since the baseline of ecological concern has also moved, I wonder why it has not yet been taught at elementary levels in school?

    So to reiterate:
    1. Teach ecological relationships early in school.
    2. Act decisively to advocate for protection of ecosystems already far too fragmented and diminished, in every way conceivable.
    3.Attempt to change the ideals of tourism from trophy seeking and collecting, to a more raw experience without societal trappings such as large groups, adjunct collectino sales.
    4. Cruise ships are an abomination: thousands pile off these freeway/cities with their social games and island-hopping pretension to experience. How to banish these moving sewage generators from the seas?

    Let the baseline be far more primitive – after all, Waikiki had functional hotels in 1903, when the beach was passable.

    The use of every available horizontal surface for occupation and agriculture must end: we need to conceive of a better future as a more depopulated one. No tax advantage should accrue to marriages or children.

    Firearms have made hunting into a sick hobby. No real relatinoship with the wild species occurs with hunters: witness Germany with the Jaeger (Hunter)lobby. They ridiculously claim that ravens, the largest remaining predatorial species, are a problem, when in reality, it is the human population, industry, hunters.

    Restoration of wild predators and their necessary habitat and prey species, is high on the list of restoring a reasonable baseline for evaluating ecosystem health.

  19. #19 altın çilek
    February 2, 2011

    This is sad issue that most people continue to ignore. I have been living here for the past 30 years and I have seen changes in the water quality from turquoise to brown green and the visabilty has decreased by 75 %. It wasn’t uncommmon to drift fish and catch 4-5 grouper 6-12 pounds in a in a single morning of fishing. Who knows what the culprit is. I think we need to stop polution from fertilizers(big sugar),from local leaking septic tanks and street storm run off into the ocean. Also I think we need to limit the catch of certain fish and put limits on lobster licenses. I would also like to stop the opening of sportsmans lobster season. This is just an open rape and pillage of our local waters. These are some of the polutants I believe contributing.

  20. #20 altın çilek
    February 2, 2011

    remember being on a dive boat in Florida 1990. Some wanted to spearfish the rest of us didn’t. The dive masters chose to let the fishers dive first so the rest of us wouldn’t have scared the fish away. The rest of us got the privilege of seeing the fish on the deck, the water was empty of large fish by the time we got down.

  21. #21 adsense hack
    February 5, 2011

    I was alone in my wish that the living beings of the sea should be treasured – even my brother called me”Albert Schweitzer” (although Al killed snakes with pleasure, while I protect rattlers and scorpions from those who would kill these necessary keystones).