On December 29, 2023, the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife (ODFW) limited the take of jack wild spring Chinook salmon on the South Umpqua River, due the extremely low fish count.

Just 17 wild adult Chinooks were detected during snorkel surveys. But for Greg Huchko, ODFW’s senior fish biologist in the Umpqua Basin, this is perfectly normal – nothing out of the ordinary.

Since the arrival of the first European colonists on this continent four hundred year ago, 95% of North America’s old growth forests have been destroyed. In those four centuries, 75% of planet Earth’s topsoil has disappeared.

According to 2015 report published by the World Wildlife Fund (and reviewed by the Zoological Society of London), between 1970 and 2015, populations of terrestrial vertebrates – mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians, and fish – declined by 58%. Tuna, mackerel, and bonito populations declined by 75%.

Of perhaps the greatest concern, this study found that populations of species that live in freshwater lakes and river systems like the North Umpqua River, have declined by 81%. These startling statistics are corroborated by a 2006 study by Dr. Boris Worm of Nova Scotia’s Dalhousie University, published in the peer-reviewed academic journal Science, that predicted at least a 90% decline in all commercially fished species by 2048.

Dr. Daniel Pauly is a French and Canadian citizen educated in Germany. He is a marine biologist at the Institute for the Oceans and Fisheries at the University of British Columbia. In 1995, Dr. Pauly identified a phenomenon which he called “Shifting Baseline Syndrome.”

Dr. Pauly explained that “each generation of fisheries scientists accept as a baseline the stock size and species composition that occurred at the beginning of their careers, and uses this to evaluate changes.”

One is reminded of a popular urban legend that a frog dropped into a pot of boiling water will immediately leap out. But if you put the frog in a pot of cold water and slowly apply heat, the frog won’t notice the gradually rising water temperature and will remain in the pot until it boils to death. 

In the world of advertising and marketing, the allegory of proverbial frog is often cited. A new product has to be introduced gradually, over an extended period of time, to successfully capture the market. This extends into the realm of human psychology. We’re generally more accepting of new ideas and changes that creep up on us slowly, even if they ultimately diminish our quality of life. 

When I was a boy, all beer and soft drinks were sold in five cent deposit bottles made of glass. So-called “recyclable plastics” had not yet been invented. Now there’s a plastic garbage patch in the Pacific Ocean twice as large as the state of Texas.

When I was a kid, old timers spoke of the good old days when the salmon were so numerous, “you could catch ‘em with a pitchfork.” They remembered when hundreds of thousands of pounds of salmon were harvested at the Winchester Dam on the North Umpqua River. Now, the fish populations in the North Umpqua have so diminished, they have to limit the take.

Wild Chinook salmon

Psychologists refer to this phenomenon as “environmental generational amnesia.” It has been described as “a gradual change in the accepted norms for the condition of the natural environment due to a lack of experience, memory and/or knowledge of its past condition.”

Dr. Pauly’s Shifting Baseline Syndrome addresses the gradually shifting perception of what is “normal” – how each successive generation of fisheries biologists embraces increasingly diminishing expectations of (and reference points for) of the depletion of fish populations and the degradation of aquatic habitat. Perhaps this explains the widespread increasing tolerance to fish stock declines over several generations of scientists.

In other words, the baseline understanding of what a healthy ecosystem should look like degrades with each successive generation. The individual reference points used by young biologists are based of the increasingly declining state of the fisheries at the time they begin their careers. Consequently, each generation develops ever lower standards for fish populations, water quality, and environmental standards.

It is, in fact, a race to the bottom. 

With the collapse of fisheries worldwide, from overfishing, clearcutting, agricultural runoff, climate change, and pollution, each new generation of scientists embraces the increasingly worse environmental conditions that ultimately dictated their perception of what is normal.

The psychological and sociological phenomenon of the Shifting Baseline Syndrome is now recognized as one of the most pervasive obstacles to addressing the environmental problems of the twenty-first century. The syndrome is not just relegated to the realm of science. 

Legislators and state and federal agency officials are as hobbled by this syndrome as academics, scientists, and voters. They believe it’s normal to count fewer than two dozen salmon at the same place on the same river where more than 30,000 were counted a few decades ago. They think it’s normal and justifiable to allow timber companies to spray carcinogenic and endocrine disrupting poisons into watersheds and other drinking water sources, despite the preponderance of evidence that these substances are so deadly and dangerous they are banned in many civilized nations.

As Masashi Soga and Kevin J Gaston explained in their 2018 article published in the journal Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment, without memory, knowledge, or experience of past environmental conditions, current generations cannot perceive how much their environment has changed because they are comparing it to their own “normal” baseline and not to historical baselines.

As laws and regulations are increasingly skewed to benefit corporations – compromising the average citizen’s health and safety – accepted thresholds for environmental destruction are also continually diminished. Each successive generation of children grow up believing the degraded environmental conditions around them are normal. The stories their parents told them about the good old days, when the rivers were cleaner and the fish more plentiful, are merely nostalgia.

These youngsters don’t perceive that what their generation has accepted as normal is a severe compromise from that which their parents and grandparents considered normal. Like the proverbial frog in hot water, these children realize too late in life, that they’re in boiling water. 

Such is the nature of excess. 

Oregon clearcut on tops deep a slope leaving to narrow a forested buffer zone along the waterway.