How Healthy Is Your Ocean?
August 16, 2012

Ocean Health Rated In New Report

April Flowers for - Your Universe Online

An international team of researchers recently rated every coastal nation on their contribution to the health of the world's oceans.

The United States rated just above average, with food provision, tourism and recreation identified as leading concerns.

The report, published in the journal Nature, gave each nation a score between 0-100 in ten separate categories like clean water, biodiversity, food provision, carbon storage, coastal protection, coastal economies and more. In all, more than 30 collaborators from universities, non-profit organizations, and government agencies, led by UCSB's National Center for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis (NCEAS) and Conservation International, pulled together data on the current status and likely future condition for factors such as seafood, coastal livelihoods, and biodiversity.

The world scored an average of 60 in this "Ocean Health Index", while the U.S. was at 63.

Around the globe, scores ranged from 36 to 86, with the highest ratings going to Jarvis Island, an uninhabited and relatively pristine coral atoll in the South Pacific Ocean, and the lowest to Sierra Leone. Countries in West Africa, the Middle East and Central America scored quite poorly.  Northern Europe, Japan, Australia and Canada garnered higher than average ratings.

Determining whether a score of 60 is better or worse than one would expect is less about analysis and more about perspective. "Is the score far from perfect with ample room for improvement, or more than half way to perfect with plenty of reason to applaud success? I think it's both," said lead author Ben Halpern, an ecologist at UC Santa Barbara. "What the Index does is help us separate our gut feelings about good and bad from the measurement of what's happening."

One of the first comprehensive analyses to evaluate the global oceans in so many critical aspects, including natural health and the human dimensions of sustainability, the report is meant to be less of a conclusion and more of a baseline to track either improvements or declines in ocean health in the future. Instead of assuming all human interaction and presence is negative, the report asks what our impacts mean for the things we care about.

"When we conclude that the health of the oceans is 60 on a scale of 100, that doesn't mean we're failing," said Karen McLeod, an ecologist at Oregon State University, director of science at COMPASS, and one of several lead authors on the study.

"Instead, it shows there's room for improvement, suggests where strategic actions can make the biggest difference, and gives us a benchmark against which to evaluate progress over time," she said. "The index allows us to track what's happening to the whole of ocean health instead of just the parts."

Human activities such as overfishing, coastal development and pollution have altered marine ecosystems and eroded their capacity to provide benefits, the researchers noted in their report. The report doesn't just focus on the negative, however.

"Several years ago I led a project that mapped the cumulative impact of human activities on the world's ocean, which was essentially an ocean pristine-ness index," said Halpern, "That was and is a useful perspective to have, but it's not enough. We tend to forget that people are part of all ecosystems —— from the most remote deserts to the depths of the ocean. The Ocean Health Index is unique because it embraces people as part of the ocean ecosystem. So we're not just the problem, but a major part of the solution, too."

"To many it may seem uncomfortable to focus on benefits to people as the definition of a healthy ocean," said Steve Katona, another of the study's lead authors, who is with Conservation International. "Yet, policy and management initiatives around the world are embracing exactly this philosophy. Whether we like it or not, people are key. If thoughtful, sustainable use of the oceans benefits human well-being, the oceans and their web of life will also benefit. The bottom line is 'healthy ocean, healthy people, healthy planet.'"

The Index emphasizes sustainability, penalizing practices that benefit people today at the expense of the ocean's ability to deliver those benefits in the future. "Sustainability tends to be issue-specific, focused on sustainable agriculture, fisheries, or tourism, for example," said McLeod. "The Index challenges us to consider what sustainability looks like across all of our many uses of the ocean, simultaneously. It may not make our choices any easier, but it greatly improves our understanding of the available options and their potential consequences."

By re-envisioning ocean health as a portfolio of benefits, the Ocean Health Index highlights the many different ways in which a place can be healthy. Just like a diversified stock portfolio can perform equally well in a variety of market conditions, many different combinations of goals can lead to a high Index score. In short, the Ocean Health Index highlights the variety of options for strategic action to improve ocean health.

One major goal of the index is to help countries make more informed policy decisions. Worldwide, ocean policy lacks a shared definition of what exactly "health" means, and has no agreed-upon set of tools to measure status and progress.

"The Index transforms the powerful metaphor of health into something concrete, transparent, and quantitative," said McLeod. "This understanding of the whole, not just the parts, is necessary to conserve and restore ocean ecosystems. We can't manage what we don't measure."

Among the findings of the study:

• Developed countries generally, but not always, scored higher than developing countries, usually due to better economies and regulation.

• Only 5 percent of countries scored higher than 70, and 32 percent were below 50.

• Biodiversity scores were surprisingly high, in part because few known marine species face outright extinction.

• The U.S. received some of its best ratings for coastal protection and strong coastal livelihoods and economies.

• Global food provision is far below its potential, and could be improved if wild-caught fisheries were more sustainably harvested, and sustainable marine aquaculture was increased.

• Restoration of mangroves, salt marshes, coral reefs and seagrass beds could significantly improve ocean health by addressing multiple goals at once.

• About half of the goals are getting worse, and this assessment could be overly optimistic if existing regulations are not effectively implemented.

Some scientists see problems with the report, but still find it a useful beginning.

Juan Armando Sanchez Munoz, who studies coral diseases at the University of the Andes in Bogota, Columbia is one of these scientists.  Munoz says he hopes the index will become a powerful tool that pulls together many disparate issues, but that one of the challenges that it faces is uneven sources of data, since many parts of the ocean are unstudied.

"I hope the Ocean Health Index can have a way to 'learn' quickly from new sources of information and correct itself periodically," he told Brian Clark Howard of National Geographic News.

Index researchers said the plan is for the index to respond to new data, and that the scientists hope to release an updated version every year. The hope is that countries will add their own data into the models to get even more detailed scores.