I am the Shellfish Division Director for the Department of Natural
Resources in Maryland and see shifting baselines, or variations
of the concept, here in Maryland. I read your article (on the web)
about shifting baselines.
OYSTER BASELINE SHIFTS
Oyster restoration in Maryland is a key topic with citizens, watermen,
legislators, scientists, environmentalists and many others. However,
many average citizens have no idea, or a slight idea at best, about
how abundant oysters once were, even in the 1970's or mid-1980's,
and not even considering the staggering abundance of 150 years ago.
Today the oyster population is at record low levels after many years
of disease mortality and habitat siltation. A good bar today is
a shadow of what we had 20 or 30 years ago, and even those conditions
pale compared to 150 years ago. The various reference points yield
varying baselines, whether we are talking about oysters (population
numbers, density levels per acre) or simply habitat quality (amount
of clean shell, acres of habitat, degree of buried shells). All
measures of oysters have declined. What might look good today, is
poor compared to the past. Beware the uninformed.
It is interesting to see people’s reactions to a present
day restoration project and how that shapes their view of the oyster
situation. They see a young oyster population created in their tributary
on a small 2-5 acre site – a population created by planting
seed oysters at high density – and think it is a wonderful
sign of recovery. Of course it is good news, a vast improvement
for that site and we hope such projects can yield additional results,
but oyster recovery is more about large scale re-building of the
habitat and the population in the Chesapeake Bay than about a few
sites here and there. A site may contain a fine project, yielding
good results, but it is a misty vapor compared to what used to exist
when oysters were naturally abundant over a broad area, not synthetically
abundant on a few sites. Even my memories of the strong populations
of the mid-1980's, which surpass these restoration projects, are
less than what existed many decades before, from what I read and
hear from "old timers" as your article mentioned. Keeping
in touch with old watermen and the old literature are key to me
as a resource manager.
OYSTER GOAL & OUR 1994 BASELINE
Maryland has a restoration goal to increase oyster biomass 10 fold
by 2010, from a 1994 baseline. The 1994 baseline was a very low
year for Maryland oysters. If I understood your article, ideally
the oyster baseline should be the population as it existed in the
early 1800's before it declined. But using such a baseline in the
context of goal setting wouldn’t allow for any increases to
occur since it would represent the ultimate population status. So
in some ways, our baseline isn’t the same kind of baseline
The 10 fold goal experience is not a true application of the shifting
baseline concept in your article. In the article, the concept assumes
today’s people are uninformed about the past and accept the
present as "good", since they don’t know any differently.
In our case, everyone involved in goal setting knew that oysters
prior to 1994 were much more abundant. Our 1994 baseline was not
what people wanted, or were used to, or were blindly locked into.
It was what we wanted to improve upon. It was a known sorry state
from which we wanted to see results. It is being used as a mathematical
starting point from which to measure progress toward the lofty 10
fold goal. Perhaps we should call the 1994 baseline a “skewed
baseline” vs a shifted one. Perhaps the 10 fold end point
is really our baseline as used in your article. A 10 fold increase
would give us populations similar to the mid-1980’s. In the
context of your article, the mid-1980’s condition would be
our shifted baseline: shifted from the early 1800’s more abundant
condition. So I guess the mid-1980’s oyster condition is “ok”
and “acceptable” to us, instead of us going to our historical
roots and saying that the early 1800’s is what we want.
Using the 1994 baseline had some practical applications here. It
was the lowest number in recent times so everyone could relate to
"Let's improve upon this". It was a focal point. It also
was something the group felt could be improved upon. There wasn’t
the money or other resources to regain the early 1800's population
but the group thought they could regain a mid-1980's population.
A 10 fold increase from 1994 "rang true" with the group.
In a way, the 10 fold endpoint was the baseline. It is what they
envisioned as good. It is what they wanted to have back again.
THE DISEASE TWIST – WILL THE BASELINE SHIFT?
Disease mortality is such a strong factor for the Chesapeake oyster
population that any progress from the 1994 baseline towards the
10 fold goal endpoint was to be an immense struggle. Everyone knew
it, but some were optimistic that progress would occur. Well, disease
has been extreme the past four years due to an extended drought
and this has resulted in record high mortality levels. Disease has
driven the population downward and undermined almost every restoration
project as well as the population at large across the Bay. For the
past two years the oyster biomass index has fallen below the 1994
baseline! We have made negative progress on the 10 fold goal in
spite of huge amounts of money and effort to restore oysters.
Will there be a shift in the baseline (the 10 fold end point) to
adjust to the new reality? One might assume the goal would shift
down to 3 fold, or 2 fold. One message in your article was to NOT
shift downward, but to keep one's focus on a healthy resource in
order to drive environmental protection and restoration. You may
be glad to hear that the desire for abundant oysters remains high.
The 10 fold goal stands. People want lots of oysters. That is good,
since oysters are good for the environment, the oyster industry
and the State economy.
Though the biomass goal stands firm, there is a slight downward
shift detected in other matters. The lack of progress has caused
some to say “Let’s give it more time. It might take
50 years or more, instead of 10. Let’s create more projects,
do this technique or that. It’s ok that we see 80% mortality
since 20% will live”. While there is always room for better
work, there is also a lowering of expectations. Lowering expectations
midstream has the result of accepting a dismal state of affairs
for a longer period of time than you would otherwise. This attitude
maintains the status-quo and delays action. So rather than stay
committed to a timeframe, an expected set of results, and previously
accepted definitions of success and failure, there is “wiggling”
to feel more comfortable with the lack of progress. This is a lowering
of the baseline, if one views timeframes and results as fitting
into a baseline concept.
The continued commitment to the 10 fold goal in the face of intense
mortality is stressing – and may shift - a different kind
of baseline: not one defined by the biomass of oysters but by the
species of oyster. The 10 fold goal was always based upon the native
species. It still is. It is our baseline. But there is an intense
debate in the Chesapeake region about using a new species to rebuild
oyster stocks. The 10 fold goal that was set for our own oyster
may catapult us to a new oyster, since our own oyster isn't getting
the job done and the goals remain intact. In your thinking about
NOT shifting one's goal or baseline, do you have any insights about
how such a stance can drive dramatic, new policies such as introducing
a new species?
It may be that only a new oyster can beat the diseases and get
us back to the mid-1980’s populations. Our non-shifting biomass
baseline may require a shift in our species baseline in order to
deliver the desired end-points. Those end-points are thriving oysters,
abundant reef life, filtration of excess algae, and a fishery. I’m
not advocating a new species. I’m not speaking on behalf of
Maryland government. I’m only saying that pressure is building
on this issue and this illustrates the shifting baseline concept
in your article. It also illustrates how staying with one’s
baseline commitment/vision can ignite debate on new policies, just
as much as lowering one’s baseline commitment/vision.
There is some baseline shift with how people perceive the oyster
resource: some aren’t aware of past abundance and might accept
the more recent situation as acceptable. Overall, those directly
involved with oysters are well informed about the historical abundance
of oysters, though we are susceptible to thinking more about the
present than the past. I find application of your shifting baseline
concept more intriguing regarding recent policy and management issues.
Our 1994 baseline is a reference mark from which to measure progress.
It probably doesn't fit your idea of a baseline, which is the vision
of what people accept as "good". For us, that would be
the 10 fold end point: this is what we envision as good. This approximates
the mid-1980’s oyster population. Our 10 fold baseline is
not shifting downward, but some elements such as the timetable for
results is, in some circles. Overall, the 10 fold biomass vision
stands. This steadfastness in the presence of poor results is driving
interest in a new species, a shifting baseline of another sort.
I'm sure the goal originators didn't expect that their baseline
vision and firm commitment to it would invite consideration of a
Thank you for any thoughts on the subject. Maryland is at a turning
point in our history with oysters.
Shellfish Division Director
Maryland Department of Natural Resources