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Mission Blue Voyage

Daniel Pauly: The ocean's shifting baseline

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The ocean has degraded within our lifetimes, as shown in the decreasing average size of fish. And yet, as Daniel Pauly shows us onstage at Mission Blue, each time the baseline drops, we call it the new "normal." At what point do we stop readjusting downward?

- Fisheries biologist
Daniel Pauly is the principal investigator at the Sea Around Us Project, which studies the impact of the world's fisheries on marine ecosystems. The software he's helped develop is used around the world to model and track the ocean. Full bio

I'm going to speak
00:12
about a tiny, little idea.
00:14
And this is about shifting baseline.
00:17
And because the idea can be explained in one minute,
00:21
I will tell you three stories before
00:25
to fill in the time.
00:28
And the first story
00:30
is about Charles Darwin, one of my heroes.
00:32
And he was here, as you well know, in '35.
00:35
And you'd think he was chasing finches,
00:38
but he wasn't.
00:40
He was actually collecting fish.
00:42
And he described one of them
00:44
as very "common."
00:46
This was the sailfin grouper.
00:48
A big fishery was run on it
00:50
until the '80s.
00:52
Now the fish is on the IUCN Red List.
00:55
Now this story,
00:58
we have heard it lots of times
01:00
on Galapagos and other places,
01:03
so there is nothing particular about it.
01:05
But the point is, we still come to Galapagos.
01:08
We still think it is pristine.
01:11
The brochures still say
01:14
it is untouched.
01:17
So what happens here?
01:19
The second story, also to illustrate another concept,
01:22
is called shifting waistline.
01:25
(Laughter)
01:27
Because I was there in '71,
01:30
studying a lagoon in West Africa.
01:32
I was there because I grew up in Europe
01:34
and I wanted later to work in Africa.
01:37
And I thought I could blend in.
01:39
And I got a big sunburn,
01:41
and I was convinced that I was really not from there.
01:43
This was my first sunburn.
01:46
And the lagoon
01:48
was surrounded by palm trees,
01:51
as you can see, and a few mangrove.
01:53
And it had tilapia
01:55
about 20 centimeters,
01:57
a species of tilapia called blackchin tilapia.
01:59
And the fisheries for this tilapia
02:01
sustained lots of fish and they had a good time
02:03
and they earned more than average
02:06
in Ghana.
02:08
When I went there 27 years later,
02:10
the fish had shrunk to half of their size.
02:13
They were maturing at five centimeters.
02:16
They had been pushed genetically.
02:18
There were still fishes.
02:20
They were still kind of happy.
02:22
And the fish also were happy to be there.
02:24
So nothing has changed,
02:29
but everything has changed.
02:31
My third little story
02:33
is that I was an accomplice
02:35
in the introduction of trawling
02:37
in Southeast Asia.
02:39
In the '70s -- well, beginning in the '60s --
02:41
Europe did lots of development projects.
02:44
Fish development
02:47
meant imposing on countries
02:49
that had already 100,000 fishers
02:51
to impose on them industrial fishing.
02:54
And this boat, quite ugly,
02:57
is called the Mutiara 4.
02:59
And I went sailing on it,
03:01
and we did surveys
03:03
throughout the southern South China sea
03:06
and especially the Java Sea.
03:09
And what we caught,
03:11
we didn't have words for it.
03:13
What we caught, I know now,
03:15
is the bottom of the sea.
03:18
And 90 percent of our catch
03:20
were sponges,
03:22
other animals that are fixed on the bottom.
03:24
And actually most of the fish,
03:27
they are a little spot on the debris,
03:29
the piles of debris, were coral reef fish.
03:31
Essentially the bottom of the sea came onto the deck
03:34
and then was thrown down.
03:36
And these pictures are extraordinary
03:38
because this transition is very rapid.
03:41
Within a year, you do a survey
03:44
and then commercial fishing begins.
03:47
The bottom is transformed
03:49
from, in this case, a hard bottom or soft coral
03:51
into a muddy mess.
03:54
This is a dead turtle.
03:57
They were not eaten, they were thrown away because they were dead.
03:59
And one time we caught a live one.
04:02
It was not drowned yet.
04:04
And then they wanted to kill it because it was good to eat.
04:06
This mountain of debris
04:09
is actually collected by fishers
04:12
every time they go
04:15
into an area that's never been fished.
04:17
But it's not documented.
04:19
We transform the world,
04:21
but we don't remember it.
04:23
We adjust our baseline
04:25
to the new level,
04:28
and we don't recall what was there.
04:30
If you generalize this,
04:34
something like this happens.
04:36
You have on the y axis some good thing:
04:38
biodiversity, numbers of orca,
04:41
the greenness of your country, the water supply.
04:44
And over time it changes --
04:47
it changes
04:49
because people do things, or naturally.
04:51
Every generation
04:53
will use the images
04:55
that they got at the beginning of their conscious lives
04:57
as a standard
05:00
and will extrapolate forward.
05:02
And the difference then,
05:04
they perceive as a loss.
05:06
But they don't perceive what happened before as a loss.
05:08
You can have a succession of changes.
05:11
At the end you want to sustain
05:13
miserable leftovers.
05:16
And that, to a large extent, is what we want to do now.
05:19
We want to sustain things that are gone
05:22
or things that are not the way they were.
05:25
Now one should think
05:29
this problem affected people
05:31
certainly when in predatory societies,
05:33
they killed animals
05:37
and they didn't know they had done so
05:39
after a few generations.
05:41
Because, obviously,
05:43
an animal that is very abundant,
05:46
before it gets extinct,
05:51
it becomes rare.
05:54
So you don't lose abundant animals.
05:57
You always lose rare animals.
06:00
And therefore they're not perceived
06:02
as a big loss.
06:04
Over time,
06:06
we concentrate on large animals,
06:08
and in a sea that means the big fish.
06:10
They become rarer because we fish them.
06:12
Over time we have a few fish left
06:15
and we think this is the baseline.
06:17
And the question is,
06:20
why do people accept this?
06:22
Well because they don't know that it was different.
06:27
And in fact, lots of people, scientists,
06:30
will contest that it was really different.
06:33
And they will contest this
06:35
because the evidence
06:37
presented in an earlier mode
06:39
is not in the way
06:44
they would like the evidence presented.
06:47
For example,
06:49
the anecdote that some present,
06:51
as Captain so-and-so
06:53
observed lots of fish in this area
06:55
cannot be used
06:58
or is usually not utilized by fishery scientists,
07:00
because it's not "scientific."
07:03
So you have a situation
07:05
where people don't know the past,
07:07
even though we live in literate societies,
07:10
because they don't trust
07:13
the sources of the past.
07:15
And hence, the enormous role
07:18
that a marine protected area can play.
07:21
Because with marine protected areas,
07:23
we actually recreate the past.
07:26
We recreate the past that people cannot conceive
07:30
because the baseline has shifted
07:33
and is extremely low.
07:35
That is for people
07:37
who can see a marine protected area
07:39
and who can benefit
07:44
from the insight that it provides,
07:46
which enables them to reset their baseline.
07:49
How about the people who can't do that
07:53
because they have no access --
07:55
the people in the Midwest for example?
07:57
There I think
08:00
that the arts and film
08:02
can perhaps fill the gap,
08:04
and simulation.
08:06
This is a simulation of Chesapeake Bay.
08:08
There were gray whales in Chesapeake Bay a long time ago --
08:11
500 years ago.
08:13
And you will have noticed that the hues and tones
08:15
are like "Avatar."
08:18
(Laughter)
08:20
And if you think about "Avatar,"
08:22
if you think of why people were so touched by it --
08:24
never mind the Pocahontas story --
08:27
why so touched by the imagery?
08:31
Because it evokes something
08:35
that in a sense has been lost.
08:38
And so my recommendation,
08:40
it's the only one I will provide,
08:42
is for Cameron to do "Avatar II" underwater.
08:44
Thank you very much.
08:49
(Applause)
08:51

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About the speaker:

Daniel Pauly - Fisheries biologist
Daniel Pauly is the principal investigator at the Sea Around Us Project, which studies the impact of the world's fisheries on marine ecosystems. The software he's helped develop is used around the world to model and track the ocean.

Why you should listen

Daniel Pauly heads the Sea Around Us Project, based at the Fisheries Centre, at the University of British Columbia. Pauly has been a leader in conceptualizing and codeveloping software that’s used by ocean experts throughout the world. At the Sea Around Us and in his other work, he’s developing new ways to view complex ocean data.

Pauly’s work includes the Ecopath ecological/ecosystem modeling software suite; the massive FishBase, the online encyclopaedia of fishes; and, increasingly, the quantitative results of the Sea Around Us Project.

Read Mission Blue's interview with Daniel Pauly >>

More profile about the speaker
Daniel Pauly | Speaker | TED.com