On Shifting (Waist) Baselines

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I love listening to stories from my parents and older relatives. However, I think we can all agree that one of the most irritating things about meeting our titas during family gatherings is their tactless habit of commenting about our weight.

Uy nag tambok ka (You’ve gained weight!)” they would say for the nth time.

In just a few months since they last saw you, they can already tell how much weight you have gained or lost as if they have a built-in weigh scanner.

I would like to think that this may be their subtle way of saying, “Yes, you’re growing old like me too!”, because judging from those high school photos, these titas looked sexier than they do now, right?

Fishers hauling nets in Pulupandan, Negros Occidental. The declining volume and quantity of fish catch over time is an indication of the shifting baseline phenomenon as newer generations think that the thinning fish numbers are “normal”. | Photo from Mark Dela Paz

But aside from commenting on our changing waistlines, another favorite topic that the older generation love to talk about, is the evolving environment: from the amount of forests there used to be, the fireflies that light up at night, and the pristine water that used to run through our streams and rivers.

I used this analogy as an introduction because while a shift in waistlines can easily be monitored in a short span of time, there are changes that affect us that we can’t easily observe, primarily because we haven’t lived long enough to confidently say that we’ve observed such changes.

As a millennial, I might not be old enough to confidently say that I have seen it all myself, but I’m also not too young to say that I have not seen even small changes occur in my lifetime.

These are changes that, unfortunately, our titas have more credibility on than commenting about our weight. So we better just sit back and listen.

When the “elders” talk, sometimes we “kids” can’t help but feel like we’re listening to some crazy exaggerated stories. We find it difficult to imagine the things that they talk about because, unfortunately, these things have started to disappear in our generation.

Student scientists from University of St. La Salle conduct interviews with fishing communities in Pulupandan. | Photo furnished by Mark De La Paz

Imagine flashbacks when “the sky turned dark because thousands of birds were flying” by the coastal wetlands; when hundreds of dolphins and whale sharks could be seen frolicking in the sea; when the Bacolod Ice Plant was supposedly “full of dead deer” because deer hunting used to be a popular sport back then.

Nobody younger than me would probably believe these stories because we’ve never seen a wild deer in the forests, or because there are no more forests to substantially explore anyway.

We seem to be so astonished every time we see some kind of wildlife in our suburban environment, as if they didn’t have any right to be there. It reaches the news when we find snakes in our backyard, or owls perching on the trees, or turtles showing up on our shores, because most of us never expected to see them up close and personal.

When we say that we caught “lots of fish” when we go on a local fishing trip, our grandparents would probably laugh at us and say, “You ain’t seen nothing yet”.

It was fisheries biologist Daniel Pauly who first coined the term “Shifting Baselines Syndrome” to refer to the shift in scientists and fishers’ perspectives of what is normal in their data when they track changes in fish stock abundance over time.

Scientists of different generations usually set the baselines of their data, or what they perceive as “normal” amount of fish stocks, at the onset of their careers, but often disregard data from previous generations.

The consequence is that their baselines are already at a point where fish stocks have already drastically declined based from previous baselines. Thus, our perspective of what is normal, is different from what was normal before.

Our research team was able to document the changes in marine resources based on the previous generations’ experiences through a series of interviews which we conducted in various fishing villages in Negros Occidental.

We were investigating the historic occurrences of marine mammals in the island, but at the same time asking about their perspectives about the changes in the fishery resources that they depended on.

Fisher folk, like the one being inteviewed, provide first-hand data on volume and quantity of fish caught at a given time. | Photo furnished by Mark dela Paz

As we conducted more interviews on older fishers, a pattern was beginning to tell us something: that fishery resources were indeed getting fewer, smaller, and harder to catch than it was, say 20 years or more ago.

The same was observed with sightings of dolphins, dugongs, and whale sharks.

Such a sad story for an island belonging to the world’s center of marine biodiversity.

It was astonishing to hear the old fishers describe the conditions of the sea back then.

They used to see dugongs in Manapla, whale sharks in Valladolid, and dolphins in Ilog.

I even remember that we were able to interview a century-old guy from Bago who said that sharks used to enter the middle reaches of Bago River. Several fishers also noted certain species of fish that used to be abundant before but are no longer caught in their nets today.

The initial data from our interviews intrigued me because as a consumer based in the city, I realized that I was dependent on consuming farmed animals that have somewhat maintained a stable supply over time, so I was unbothered if there was a decrease in supply of any kind of wild-caught fish.

However, it was a whole different story for small-scale fishers, who go out every morning on their small outrigger boats to set out their nets and hope that they catch enough fish to feed their families and sell more for extra income.

Over time, it has become even more difficult for them to sustain this kind of lifestyle as more and more people exploit the sea and compete with them.

Eventually they had to compete not just with fishers from their own villages, but from large commercial ships with nets and trawls that could cover their entire village.

Worse is, the mangrove forests that used to be the nurseries of the fish they caught have been destroyed to make way for fish ponds.

Yes, fish ponds to culture fish to feed people in the city like me.

The same is true with other conditions that we observe in our island. Our forests are slowly shrinking right before our very eyes.

This decrease in forest cover is roughly depicted in Heaney and Regalado’s book “Vanishing Treasures of the Philippine Rainforest” where a series of maps show how forests that used to cover almost 90% of the island have been reduced to its present condition of less than 5%.

This was mainly due to the introduction of sugarcane farming, and massive logging firms that chopped down the islands’ primary forests.

Our proud identity as the sugar bowl of the Philippines, has forest blood on our hands.
And the forests’ decline continues as more roads are paved into the mountains, making way for eventual land settlement.

A fishing boat along the seashore in Pulupandan. Fishers here have to compete with big trawlers for fish catch. | Photo furnished by Mark dela Paz

What will probably be accepted as normal in the future will be vacation houses and resorts in a forest reserve where there used to be no roads, no humans, but abundant wildlife.

The closest a student of the future can probably get to a Visayan spotted deer would be in a breeding center if not a museum.

The older generation cannot necessarily blame us if we find it hard to believe their stories.

We are basically a generation that had to accept the consequences of their generation’s destructive activities.

But it is also perilous if we settle and accept these present day conditions as our idea of normal, because it is not.

If we choose to kid ourselves that our society hasn’t impacted much of our natural environment, then we risk of exploiting more and more resources unsustainably.

We have to be critical about how we see things and always consider how much biodiversity we have lost along our history.

It is treacherous to accept that destroying the natural world is necessary for economic development.

If we do not learn from the past, we might follow the same direction of absent-mindedly mismanaging our resources to the point of non-sustainability.

And it won’t be just us who will suffer, but it will also be our blame if we don’t provide a better-cared planet for the next generation.

So when it is our turn to be parents and titos and titas, we do not need to brag about how beautiful it used to be then, but how much we have striven to pass unto them a better world.

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