Will Bowen | Downtown News
All over the globe we humans suffer from a kind of collective amnesia. We can’t seem to remember, conceptualize, nor look very far back into the past. Hence, the big picture of time or its historical progression eludes us … we tend to think that our own personal memory of the world is the way it has always been.
It is the same in the case of conservation and environmental protection, or how we manage our dwindling natural resources, which is one of the most pressing problems humanity is confronted with today.
On the whole, the biologists who are working on this problem suffer the same fault — they are not looking far enough back in time, and that is why there has been a serial collapse of the fisheries worldwide, and most of our management plans are not working to restore depleted species.
Some people think that the solution may lie in looking farther back into the deep past, into “Deep History,” in order to better understand where we have been, where we are today and were we are going.
Dr. Daniel Pauly at the University of British Columbia was the first to shout a warning way back in 1995. Pauly argued that the biologists who were mapping out plans for our marine reserves — which are meant to protect the fish, mammals, fowl, and flora of the sea — were not thinking back far enough. He called the problem “the shifting baselines syndrome.”
According to Pauly, each new generation of biologists took their assessment of the stock of nature when they first began their career as the ideal state we needed to return to. They forgot to look farther back to where things were in previous generations.
Thus, the baseline of abundance or what was normal or acceptable had shifted over the years. Pauly recommended that we begin to take the antedotes and stories about the abundance of nature that comes from earlier times seriously.
Locally, Dr. Todd Braje is a new professor of anthropology at San Diego State University. Braje specializes in historical ecology and archaeology and has taken up Pauly’s banner, trying to right our vision of the natural world.
“Mine is a call to arms,” Braje said. “We have a skewed view of the environment and have come to accept living in a 10-percent world, where we think having 10 percent of our possible resources is normal. We must rethink our resource management plans.
“Pauly was right when he argued that fisheries management policies have been based on shallow historical records extending back no more than 50 years,” Braje continued. “Commercial fishing had already depleted the resource base by then. Effective fisheries management must be built on data sets that extend into a deeper past and take into account the impacts and sustainability practices of ancient peoples. This is where archaeologists and historians can make significant contributions to insure the long term health of fisheries and marine ecosystems.”
Braje bases his conclusions on extensive fieldwork on the Pacific Northwest Coast and on the Channel Islands, where he has been excavating shell middens and village sites of Paleo-Indians that date back 8 – 12,000 years.
He has been using his data to construct a picture of how early man in America influenced the environment and what stocks were like in bygone days.
Braje has looked at impacts on red abalone, rockfish, and pinnapeds that occurred over thousands of years, based on the salvage of their remains. Now he hopes to turn his attention to the San Diego area, especially San Diego Bay and our coastline, to help inform the biologists who are currently at work trying to restore and protect these areas.
“Archaeology can provide good data to help us assess ecological changes going back 12,000 years, to the start of the Holocene era when mankind first appeared on our shores,” Braje said. “The problem is getting biologists to listen because the data we can provide is on a different scale, form, and resolution, and not as robust as what biologists can gather today with modern high tech scientific methods.”
Braje thinks that what is needed is more collaboration and interdisciplinary communication; taking Deep History into account, and taking a longer view of ecological relationships, as well as change — both natural and man made — that have occurred in our ecosystems.
Much of Braje’s most recent work has been on San Miguel Island, the furthest northwest of the Channel Islands. Ancestors of the Chumash people have been on these Islands for the last 12,000 years, living on shellfish, mammals, and fish that live in the nutrient-rich waters that surround them.
‘The abalone population of the West Coast has been severely depleted due to over harvesting and ‘withering foot disease,’ which overtook abalone stocks in the 1970s,” Braje said.
Fishing for abalone is currently closed off the coast of California, and the red abalone stocks on San Miguel have been rebounding. This rebounding has caused commercial fishermen to want it reopened.
Based on his excavation and analysis of ancient shell middens, Braje warns that reopening it would be unwise. He suggests we must first wait and see if red abalone rebounds on the other Channel Islands as well. San Miguel has always been the hatchery for the rest of the islands and would be the first place to make a come back.
Braje has also been collecting old fish bones and doing extensive studies of historical and archeological records related to fishing for rockfish (Sebastes spp.).
Paleo-Indians first harvested rockfish with fish gorges and spears before developing the technology to craft abalone hooks for use in hook and line fishing.
“Today there is less diversity of species [fewer different types of rockfish] than there were in ancient times,” Braje said. “And they are all of an average smaller size, with a 14-percent reduction in size, based on measurement of old and modern fish bones.”
Braje hopes to turn his attention toward issues in the management of the marine resources and ecosystems in the San Diego area and at ecological change here over time.
“We need to use a smaller screen size for sifting through remains so we don’t miss small fish bones — which is what happened in the past,” he said. “We need to start collecting fish ear bones or otoliths, which have been neglected by past researchers. They are the key to precise identification of species. We also need to do more DNA and radio isotope studies of bones already in collections.”
Braje also hopes to look at the marine mammals of San Diego, such as the harbor seals currently residing at the Children’s Pool in La Jolla, as well as the sea lions of La Jolla Cove and San Diego Bay. He said that prior to the colonial era, Guadalupe fur seals — once prevalent here — no longer exist because of European sea-going hunters.
“We can build a better future for our marine systems by building better management plans,” Braje said. “But there things we need to correct.”
SDSU thinks so much of Braje’s ideas that they are going to build an institute dedicated to this kind of study. The Center for Climate Change and Sustainability Studies (C2S2) will build a vision called “Desired Future Condition,” and focus on interdisciplinary collaboration, broadening the time perspective and balancing both ecological and economic concerns, all things Braje has championed.
Learn more at go.sdsu.edu/research.
—Will Bowen writes about arts and culture. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.