Shifting Baselines (Hardcover)

The Past and the Future of Ocean Fisheries

By Dr. Jeremy B.C. Jackson, PhD (Editor), Alexander, Karen E., ABD, MA (Editor), Dr. Enric Sala, PhD (Editor), Jeff Bolster (Contributions by), Francisco Chavez, PhD (Contributions by), Jamie Cournane, PhD (Contributions by), Jon Erlandson, PhD (Contributions by), David Field (Contributions by), Marah J. Hardt (Contributions by), Carina B. Lange (Contributions by), Dr. William B. Leavenworth (Contributions by), Heike Lotze (Contributions by), Dr. Alec D. MacCall (Contributions by), Loren McClenachan (Contributions by), Richard Norris (Contributions by), Dr. Randy Olson, PhD (Contributions by), Dr. Stephen R. Palumbi, PhD (Contributions by), Daniel Pauly (Contributions by), Andrew A. Rosenberg (Contributions by), Kaustuv Roy (Contributions by), Carl Safina (Contributions by), Paul Smith (Contributions by), Tim D. Smith (Contributions by), Rashid Sumaila (Contributions by), Daniel Vickers (Contributions by), Christine R. Whitcraft (Contributions by)

Island Press, 9781610910002, 312pp.

Publication Date: August 29, 2011

Other Editions of This Title:
Paperback (8/29/2011)

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Shifting Baselines explores the real-world implications of a groundbreaking idea: we must understand the oceans of the past to protect the oceans of the future. In 1995, acclaimed marine biologist Daniel Pauly coined the term "shifting baselines" to describe a phenomenon of lowered expectations, in which each generation regards a progressively poorer natural world as normal. This seminal volume expands on Pauly's work, showing how skewed visions of the past have led to disastrous marine policies and why historical perspective is critical to revitalize fisheries and ecosystems.
Edited by marine ecologists Jeremy Jackson and Enric Sala, and historian Karen Alexander, the book brings together knowledge from disparate disciplines to paint a more realistic picture of past fisheries. The authors use case studies on the cod fishery and the connection between sardine and anchovy populations, among others, to explain various methods for studying historic trends and the intricate relationships between species. Subsequent chapters offer recommendations about both specific research methods and effective management. This practical information is framed by inspiring essays by Carl Safina and Randy Olson on a personal experience of shifting baselines and the importance of human stories in describing this phenomenon to a broad public.
While each contributor brings a different expertise to bear, all agree on the importance of historical perspective for effective fisheries management. Readers, from students to professionals, will benefit enormously from this informed hindsight.

About the Author

Jeremy Jackson is Director of CMBC,  the William E. and Mary B. Ritter Professor of Oceanography at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in La Jolla, California, and a Senior Scientist at the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute in the Republic of Panama. He was Professor of Ecology at the Johns Hopkins University from 1971 to 1985. Dr. Jackson is the author of more than100 scientific publications and five books. His current research includes the long-term impacts of human activities on the oceans and the ecological and evolutionary consequences of the gradual formation of the Isthmus of Panama. He co-founded the Panama Paleontology Project in 1986, an international group of some 30 scientists, to help support his isthmian research. He has also worked extensively on the ecology of coral reef communities and the tempo and mode of speciation in the sea. Dr. Jackson is a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and received the Secretary's Gold Medal for Exceptional Service of the Smithsonian Institution in 1997 and the UCSD Chancellor's Award for Excellence in Science and Engineering in 2002. His work on overfishing was chosen by Discover magazine as the outstanding environmental achievement of 2001. He has served on committees and boards of the World Wildlife Fund US, the National Research Council, the National Center for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis, and the Science Commission of the Smithsonian Institution.

Karen Alexander is a historian who is currently Project Coordinator of the Gulf of Maine Cod Project.

Dr. Daniel Pauly is a French citizen who completed his high school and university studies in Germany; his doctorate (1979) and habilitation (1985) are in Fisheries Biology, from the University of Kiel.

After many years at the International Center for Living Aquatic Resources Management (ICLARM), in Manila, Philippines, Pauly became in 1994 Professor at the Institute for the Oceans and Fisheries (formerly Fisheries Centre) of the University of British Columbia, Vancouver, Canada, of which he was the Director for five years (Nov. ’03-Oct. ’08). Since 1999, he is also Principal Investigator of the Sea Around Us research initiative (see, funded by the Pew Charitable Trusts, and devoted to studying, documenting, and promoting policies to mitigate the impact of fisheries on the world’s marine ecosystems.

Pauly has supervised a large number of Master and PhD students in the Philippines, Germany, and British Columbia. 

The concepts, methods, and software which Pauly (co-)developed, documented in over 500 scientific and general-interest publications, are used throughout the world, not least as a result of his teaching a multitude of courses, and supervising students in four languages on five continents. This applies especially to the Ecopath modeling approach and software ( and FishBase, the online encyclopedia of fishes (, the latter recently complemented by SeaLifeBase (

This work is recognized in various profiles, notably Science (Apr. ’02); Nature (Jan. ’03); New York Times (Jan. ’03), in developing countries, and by numerous awards, among them honorary doctorates from four universities, being elected a Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada (Academy of Science; ‘03); and receiving the Award of Excellence of the American Fisheries Society (‘04); the International Cosmos Prize, Japan (‘05), the Volvo Environmental Prize, Sweden (‘06), the Excellence in Ecology Prize, Germany (‘07), and the Ramon Margalef Prize in Ecology, Spain (‘08).

Pauly has authored or co-authored over 500 scientific articles, book chapters, and shorter contributions, and authored, or (co-)edited about 30 books and reports. His books include Five Easy Pieces: The Impact of Fisheries on Marine Ecosystems, and with coauthor with Jay Maclean, In a Perfect Ocean: The State Of Fisheries And Ecosystems In The North Atlantic Ocean.

Praise For Shifting Baselines: The Past and the Future of Ocean Fisheries

"Only by opening our minds to the past can we truly see and understand what humans have done to the natural world. Shifting Baselines is a poignant expos é of this fundamental yet sadly underappreciated truth, made both rigorous and credible through the skillful melding of traditional and natural history. A must read for everyone who cares about the status of fisheries, the state of our oceans, and the ideal of sustainability."

— James A. Estes

"What exactly are marine conservationists trying to conserve? Most would answer 'nature.' But this important book—an innovative collaboration between scientists and historians—shows us that the current state of nature is not natural at all. On the contrary, it is profoundly depleted, the result of 300 years of intense human predation and pollution. If we continue on our present course, we shall 'manage' our fisheries to extinction."

— Naomi Oreskes

"In this book, Jackson and contributors illustrate how appreciation of historical baselines in marine ecosystems demands fundamental revisions of restoration goals for ocean resources and inclusion in ecosystem-based management schemes for fishes. This approach holds promise of transforming the science of sustainability."

— Charles H. "Pete" Peterson

"Twenty-six international scientists and historians contribute 11 chapters exploring the 'shifting baselines' paradigm—how each generation regards a progressively poorer natural world as normal—as it applies to current perceptions of the world's oceans and the future of ocean fisheries. "

Book News

"Given the diverse backgrounds of the contributors, this book gives a wide view of what the past means for the future: what cod populations really looked like, how to detect genetic bottlenecks (for instance, a population of 100 female whales loses 0.5 percent of its genetic variation every generation), why we need to write communication into scientific budgets. Editors Jeremy Jackson, Karen Alexander, and Enric Sala have tied all the threads together (full disclosure: they are friends and colleagues, as are many of the chapter authors)."

— Guilty Planet Blog, Scientific American

"[Shifting Baselines] provides a unique historical perspective on the evolution of knowledge and scientific thinking around shifting baselines...Book is a great effort by the editors and their team of authors, and it makes for compelling reading."


"Contributors present an analysis of historical data on the impacts of humans on marine systems, and address the need to understand the past to help predict the future. The essays are presented in a clear, logical manner..."


"Ecologists and historians, in an all-too-rare collaboration, combine their perspectives to explore the significance of the shifting-baselines paradigm in a set of studies that cover most of the world's major oceans."

Conservation Biology

"Shifting Baselines is refreshing intellectually in its willingness to bring together fisheries science and history to impose new questions on the development of the marine environment and the exploitation of the fisheries."

Environmental History

"Shifting Baselines is a stimulating and necessary volume for anyone interested in the issues surrounding marine conservation, ecosystem-based management, or how societies may set ambitious but realistic targets for biodiversity."