Ocean Health Index Helps Save Our Seas
by jon bowermaster
It should come as no surprise that during the past century man has put a severe strain on the ocean. We have carelessly overfished it, polluted it, dumped carbon dioxide into it, and heated 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, and 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.
While the occasional shark sighting or the fact that tar balls continue to wash up on the beaches may get headlines, there are bigger reasons Floridians should be concerned. On the economic front, according to the US Fish & Wildlife Service, Florida’s recreational saltwater fishery has an economic impact of $5.7 billion, supporting more than 54,500 jobs. Physically we are a state surrounded on three sides by the ocean— the fact that sea levels continue to creep up is deeply troubling. So is the fact that 40 percent of our population lives near the coast, and that population continues to grow fast.
“Florida is this incredible place for beaches and oceans and fishing,” says Jerald Ault, professor of marine biology and fisheries at the University of Miami’s Rosenstiel School of Marine & Atmospheric Science. “It truly is the fishing capital of the world. But it suffers from massive population growth, and successive uses. (There are 1 million registered recreational fishing boats in the state.) By 2035, we might be at 20 million people. The result is that in Florida we are overusing our ocean. We are loving it to death.”
To try and stem the tide of ocean abuse around the globe, some of the greatest minds in the science, conservation, and business worlds have combined forces to create a way to encourage cleaning up some of the worst of the ocean’s problems. The solution is the Ocean Health Index, a study of each of the 171 Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZs) surrounding countries with ocean coastlines. That data was collected worldwide and analyzed using 10 criteria that included 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 this grading system is to incentivize countries, regions, and industries to clean up existing problems and invest in ocean protection.
Announced in August, the Ocean Health Index is the creation of Conservation International, the National Geographic Society, New England Aquarium, and the National Center for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis. Since 2008, more than 60 scientists have traveled the globe evaluating ecological, social, economic, and political factors for every coastal country and adding up the results.
The best score was given to isolated Jarvis Island in the South Pacific, with an 86; 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, snugged between Pitcairn and the Ukraine. The average score was 60, or as Greg Stone, Conservation International’s executive vice president and chief scientist for oceans, put it, a D. It wasn’t just remote islands that scored 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 shine in food supply, clean water, and tourism.
The group that devised the Index 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 respective seascapes and how to fix them. 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. He says the response to the research has already been positive. “You can’t manage something like ocean health without actually having a tool to measure it,” Halpern says. “It’s not a panacea that’s going to solve all problems, 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 says 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 it can improve its 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 must be concerned about the ocean’s health.
Ault takes protecting the ocean back to his point that we are at risk of loving the ocean to death. “Few are talking about curbing population growth. And initially, when it does come up, there is a lot of resistance to the idea—kind of the marine version of the NRA,” he says. “But the remarkable thing is that people are getting on board. In the Keys, the tourist industry is using MPAs (Marine Protected Areas) as attractions, which is good for both marine life and people.”
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 Index for a straightforward reason: It encourages healthy competition. “There is nothing like good old-fashioned competition between neighboring countries to encourage actions to improve ocean health,” he says. “I have already spoken to top government officials in five countries who are interested in the Ocean Health Index approach and results.”
Stone agrees that now is the perfect time to be releasing this seemingly straightforward rating mechanism. “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 point on earth) and new marine protected areas being announced with regularity.”
Stone is hopeful that the Index will prove to be a missing link between talk and action, though he admits measuring direct change to come 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,” he says. “We are in an era where humans dominate the ocean, and we are the first to admit we are measuring a troubled system.”
photography by getty images (manatee); Sarah Hoyt/Conservation International (megonigal); Burt jones and Maruine Shimlock (fish)