Ocean Health Index Helps Save Our Seas

by jon bowermaster | December 13, 2012 | Home Page

No place in the country has a more intimate relationship with the ocean than the northern Atlantic states. Long before industrialization, the ocean has shaped the lives of coastal dwellers and mariners from Newfoundland to Cape Cod to Point Judith.

While today much of the Cape is protected as National Seashore and may look the way it did a century ago, it should come as no surprise that during the past century humankind has put a severe strain on the ocean. We carelessly overfish it, pollute it, dump carbon dioxide into it, and heat it up. Perhaps the fact that it covers more than 70 percent of the planet has allowed us to think that the ocean has an infinite ability to absorb toxic runoff, billions of pieces of plastic, 24 million tons of carbon dioxide a year, and still somehow miraculously heal itself—all the while providing us with valuable resources ranging from food to medicines. According to the Pew Environmental Group, 14 of 20 groundfish populations are either overfished or experiencing overfishing of species including cod and flounder, which is hurting our region’s marine environment and economy.

To try to stem the tide of ocean abuse, some of the brightest minds in the science, conservation, and business worlds have joined forces to encourage cleaning up some of the worst of the ocean’s problems. The result is a study of each of the world’s 171 nations with a coastline. That data was collected worldwide and analyzed using 10 different criteria, including coastal protection, biodiversity, and tourism and recreation. Each country was then given an overall grade between 1 and 100 that rates how it is measuring up. The goal of assigning these grades is to incentivize countries, regions, and industries to clean up existing problems and invest in ocean protection.

The initial Ocean Health Index, announced in August, is the creation of Conservation International, the National Geographic Society, New England Aquarium, and the National Center for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis. Dr. Scott Doney, a Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution senior scientist whose expertise is in ocean chemistry and biogeochemistry, is one of several contributors to the index. “Usually when people think about the state of the ocean, they think about marine life—for example: how whales, fish, and coral reefs are doing,” says Doney. “But we can’t think of nature and human activity as two separate things.”

In 2008 more than 60 scientists traveled the globe evaluating ecological, social, economic, and political factors for every coastal country and added up the results. The highest score, 86, was given to isolated Jarvis Island in the South Pacific; the lowest went to the African nation of Sierra Leone, with a score of 36. The US scored 63, tying it for 26th on the list, snuggled between Pitcairn and the Ukraine. The average score was 60, or a “D,” as Dr. Greg Stone, Conservation International’s executive vice president and chief scientist for oceans and one of the originators of the index, put it. Remote islands weren’t the only places to score well; Germany ranked fourth, with a score of 73, suggesting its marine region is well protected. While the US scored well in coastal protection, it didn’t do so well in food supply, clean water, and tourism.

The group that dreamed up the OHI hopes it will become the lead indicator used by policy makers and conservationists around the world as they try to assess what’s wrong with their marine habitats and how to fix them. Dr. Ben Halpern, a marine biologist at the University of California, Santa Barbara, oversaw the project and wrote the peer-reviewed paper introducing it in Nature. The response to the research has already been “remarkably positive and excited,” he says. “You can’t manage something like ocean health without actually having a tool to measure it,” Halpern states. “The index is not a panacea that’s going to solve all problems,” he adds, “but it will definitely help in the process of trying to fix things.”

While admitting he was surprised by the average score of 60, Halpern said the reaction from some corners of the world has been swift: Marine biologists with the Colombian government (ranked 94th) immediately invited a team from Conservation International to advise how they can improve their country’s score. The ratings are relevant not only to coastal dwellers; anyone who eats fish, escapes to the beach, or worries about the planet’s weather patterns should be concerned about the ocean’s health.

Doney, who made contributions to the project’s theoretical scoping, says the study is an effort to develop a better system for thinking about how to manage the ocean. “We use the ocean for so many things. I’m hoping this will get people to think about tradeoffs and establish a healthy dialogue about the future of the ocean,” he adds. He also contributed to the study’s integration of a large number of data sets that cut across the social and natural sciences, as well as to the components on carbon storage: how coastal wetlands store carbon and how, by protecting coastal wetlands, we can reduce the emissions of carbon to the atmosphere and possibly get biological systems to remove it altogether.

Marine biologist Sebastian Troëng, vice president of marine conservation at Conservation International, lives and works along the Atlantic coastline and is extremely concerned about the health of local waterways. He likes the OHI for a straightforward reason: It encourages healthy rivalry. “There is nothing like good old-fashioned competition between neighboring countries to encourage actions to improve ocean health. I have already spoken to top government officials in five countries who are interested in the Ocean Health Index’s approach and results, so there is definitely an appetite for the index and its scores.”

Dr. Stone agrees that now is the perfect time to release this seemingly straightforward rating system. “I’ve never seen a moment as open, with so much opportunity as this for the oceans, in my life. Even within the last several months the tempo has picked up, with James Cameron going to the bottom of the Mariana Trench [the deepest part of the world’s oceans] and new marine protected areas being announced with regularity.”

He is hopeful that the index will prove to be a missing link between talk and action, although he admits measuring direct change resulting from it will not be easy. “One thing to be clear on: We are not trying to compare the health of the ocean today to a time when it was pristine, thousands of years ago. That’s history,” Dr. Stone says. “We are in an era where humans dominate the ocean, and we are the first to admit we are measuring a troubled system.”

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photography by ronald morales (bay), john bullister/noaa/pmel (doney); photography by sterling zumbrunn

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