Changing Baselines

(Published June 2003)

“You shoulda seen it when...

  • you could see grass on the bottom in at least 10 to 12 feet of water.

  • oyster reefs were so abundant they were navigational hazards.

  • water flowed out of water wells at the land surface.

  • the shad run was so strong it looked like you could walk across the river on their backs.

  • you could paddle up any creek and fill the skiff with crab “doublers.”

  • ducks and geese were there for the taking.

  • sturgeon roe was more abundant than Russian caviar.”

All these statements once applied to Chesapeake Bay and the Northern Neck. Today, it is hard to imagine what the Bay was like at the time Europeans arrived. Scientists refer to changes in perception (Old Timer’s Syndrome) as “Shifting Baselines” ( Changes happen so slowly that individuals lose perspective on how significant they can be, and the mutterings of the “old folks” sound somewhat like science fiction to the next generation.

Scientists agree that the ocean ecosystems are in crisis worldwide. Every food species that is harvested is highly stressed, or worse. The recently released Pew Oceans Commissions report ( concludes that 90% of the large fish in the ocean have been killed. There are three primary reasons for the decline in the global ocean ecosystem: over-harvesting, habitat destruction and by-catch. All three problems apply locally.

Over-harvesting affects all species in the Bay, and is the reason that stocks must be managed in a realistic scientific manner, irrespective of economic and societal implications. We know that proper management works, as is proven by the return of rockfish, and is being proven by the return of shad as dams are removed from rivers in which they spawn and permits for new dams are denied. Management of other stocks, such as the blue crab, has been less successful. The most egregious omission is for Virginia to continue to permit the taking of “sponge” crabs, or egg-bearing females. Continuing this practice is analogous to a herdsman slaughtering most of his cows and then wondering why there are so few calves in the spring. The egg-bearing sooks have put so much energy into making eggs that they aren’t meaty enough to be worth picking anyway. During the last three years, the worst on record, only about 50 million pounds of crabs were harvested, down from a typical average of about 75 million pounds and a maximum harvest of over 100 million pounds.

Repeated oyster dredging results in the destruction of habitat as the reefs are flattened. Clam dredging tears up beds of sea-grass. Nonpoint-source pollution by the nutrients nitrate and phosphate cloud the water and prevent Submerged Aquatic Vegetation (SAV) from growing. The demise of entire communities of organisms, such as oyster reefs or sea grass beds, has repercussions throughout the food chain. Oyster aquaculture is an obvious alternative to conventional oyster harvesting. It remains to be seen if we can