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.
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):
Photos of fish caught between 1965-1979 (photo credits: Monroe County Library):
Photos of fish caught between 1980-1985 (photo credits: Monroe County Library):
Photos of fish caught in 2007 (photo credit: Loren McClenachan):
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?