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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 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.

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 you discuss.

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.

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 new species.

Thank you for any thoughts on the subject. Maryland is at a turning point in our history with oysters.

Christopher Judy
Shellfish Division Director
Maryland Department of Natural Resources