Nature Study Examines Ocean Health

A new index provides the first global assessment combining natural and human dimensions of sustainability.


A worldwide look at the Global Ocean Health Index. Scientists say the index provides a powerful new tool to raise awareness and improve management and protection of the world's oceans. Credit: National Center for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis


Special to USF News


ST. PETERSBURG, Fla.  (Aug. 15, 2012) - Using a new comprehensive index designed to assess the benefits to people of healthy oceans, a team of scientists that includes USF Biological Oceanographer Kendra Daly has evaluated the ecological, social, economic and political conditions for every coastal country in the world.


Their findings, published in the journal Nature show that the global ocean overall scores 60 out of 100 on the Index. Individual country scores range widely, from 36 to 86. The highest-scoring locations included both densely populated, highly developed nations such as Germany, as well as uninhabited islands, such as Jarvis Island in the Pacific.


Determining whether a score of 60 is better or worse than one would expect is less about the analysis and more about perspective, the researchers said.


“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,” says lead author Ben Halpern, an ecologist at University of California, Santa Barbara. “What the Index does is help us separate our gut feelings about good and bad from the measurement of what's happening.”


The Index – being called the Ocean Health Index – is the first broad, quantitative assessment of the critical relationships between the ocean and people, framed in terms of the many benefits derived from the ocean. Instead of simply assuming any human presence is negative, it asks what our impacts mean for the things we care about.


“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,” Halpern said. “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.”


In all, more than 30 collaborators from universities, non-profit organizations, and government agencies, led by the National Center for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis and Conservation International, pulled together data on the current status and likely future condition for things like seafood, coastal livelihoods, and biodiversity. All together, 10 “shared goals” define the health of the ocean as its ability to provide such benefits now and in the future.


Daly said a unique aspect of the Ocean Health Index is the recognition that humans are an intrinsic part of marine ecosystems. 


“We need to learn how to better manage human activities to improve marine ecosystem resilience and sustainability,” Daly said.  “This Index provides a new tool for managers, which should lead to more robust and sustainable ocean policies.”


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. The Index challenges us to consider what sustainability looks like across all of our many uses of the ocean, simultaneously,” said Karen McLeod, one of the lead authors. “It may not make our choices any easier, but it greatly improves our understanding of the available options and their potential consequences.”


This project was started two years ago as a working group funded by the National Center for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis (NCEAS) which supports cross-disciplinary research and encourages the application of science to natural resource management and public policy decision making, Daly said.  The funding allowed the project to assemble a novel team of fisheries scientists, oceanographers, economists, and applied social scientists from academia and federal agencies that otherwise would not likely have worked together.

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.


“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. “Yet, policy and management initiatives around the world are embracing exactly this philosophy. Whether we like it or not,” he continues, “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.’”


Around the world, 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. 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,” said McLeod.


Furthermore, the scientists said, the first global assessment of the health of the ocean provides an important baseline against which future change can be measured. Without such a baseline, there is no way to know if things are actually getting better in response to management and conservation actions.


“The Index can provide strategic guidance for ocean policy,” said Andrew Rosenberg, another of the lead authors and a former member of the U.S. Commission on Ocean Policy. “Because the Index includes current status, trends, and factors affecting sustainability for ten broadly shared goals, it enables managers to focus on key actions that can really make a difference in improving the health of the ocean and benefits we derive from a healthier ocean.”