Rapidly shifting environmental baselines among fishers of the Gulf of California

A Saenz-Arroyo, C M Roberts, J Torre, M Carino-Olvera, R R Enriquez-Andrade

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Shifting environmental baselines are inter-generational changes in perception of the state of the environment. As one generation replaces another, people's perceptions of what is natural change even to the extent that they no longer believe historical anecdotes of past abundance or size of species. Although widely accepted, this phenomenon has yet to be quantitatively tested. Here we survey three generations of fishers from Mexico's Gulf of California (N= 108), where fish populations have declined steeply over the last 60 years, to investigate how far and fast their environmental baselines are shifting. Compared to young fishers, old fishers named five times as many species and four times as many fishing sites as once being abundant/productive but now depleted (Kruskal-Wallis tests, both p < 0.001) with no evidence of a slowdown in rates of loss experienced by younger compared to older generations (Kruskal-Wallis test, n.s. in both cases). Old fishers caught up to 25 times as many Gulf grouper Mycteroperca jordani as young fishers on their best ever fishing day (regression r(2) = 0.62, p < 0.001). Despite times of plentiful large fish still being within living memory, few young fishers appreciated that large species had ever been common or nearshore sites productive. Such rapid shifts in perception of what is natural help explain why society is tolerant of the creeping loss of biodiversity. They imply a large educational hurdle in efforts to reset expectations and targets for conservation.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1957-1962
Number of pages6
JournalProceedings of the royal society b-Biological sciences
Issue number1575
Publication statusPublished - 22 Sept 2005


  • overfishing
  • historical ecology
  • biodiversity loss
  • fishing
  • fisheries

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