The New Ocean Health Index Measures Human Impacts on Our Oceans

By | August 24, 2012 at 11:47 am | No comments

With an estimated ecosystem service value of $21 trillion dollars (USD) per year, it’s no wonder why we aim to conserve our oceans. On August 15, Conservation International and partners launched the Ocean Health Index – a publicly accessible tool to assess how humans impact our oceans.

The index describes ten socio-ecological objectives and services that our oceans provide, ranging from carbon storage and biodiversity to tourism & recreation and sense of place. These indicators are measured both globally and by country (those which border an ocean – 171 countries in total) to show which countries are doing well (or not).

“The Ocean Health Index is like a thermometer of ocean health, which will allow us to determine how the patient is doing,” said National Geographic Explorer-in-Residence Dr. Enric Sala. “The index will be a measure of whether our policies are working, or whether we need new solutions.”

As a recent Nature article describes, the disparity is rather large. The global index scores 60/100 overall, with only 5% of countries above 70/100 and 32% below 50/100. This shows a great need for many countries to work harder on coastal management plans and goals.

The top two countries on this index are also of great note – Jarvis Island, located off the coast of New Zealand, and the USA Pacific Uninhabited Territories (scored of 86 and 80, respectively). Jarvis Island data is incomplete and only scored on four of the ten indices, and those USA islands are, well, uninhabited. Giving these countries a pat on the back for doing a great job doesn’t seem merited.

However, some listed countries on the Top 10 are doing their part while also being populated. Germany scored 4th on the list (73/100), achieving a perfect score in carbon storage and a nearly perfect score in coastal protection. Canada also scored 9th (70/100), leading the way in biodiversity and coastal protection (a greater feat than Germany, considering the size of Canada’s coast).

The United States placed 23rd with a score of 63/100. Aggressive scores were achieved in two categories: artisanal fishing opportunities (i.e., ensuring food for local communities) and coastal livelihoods and economies. Low scores were gained in natural products (i.e., extracting products from our oceans in a sustainable fashion) and food provision (i.e., how we extract seafood from our oceans).

This index shows a compelling picture: the USA may be focusing more on economic sustainability, with less care towards how we ecologically use our oceans. Management plans may need to integrate ecological principles in a more explicit fashion in order to increase USA’s score in the Ocean Health Index and to ensure our oceans are preserved for the future.

Globally, tourism and recreation scored the lowest (10/100), meaning that the international community is not maintaining tourism destinations in a sustainable fashion. Considering international tourism has more than tripled since 1980, a concerted effort may be needed to ensure that our oceans remain intact – not only for the species within it, but also for our own enjoyment.

Although some are calling the Ocean Health Index a “Eureka!” moment for conservation, the feelings aren’t mutual for everyone. The index is a model – and with these sorts of models, there are assumptions made in order to make them tick. Although it’s a great start to thinking about human impacts on our oceans, caution should be taken when investigating these numbers. A deeper understanding of these numbers by scientists and policy-makers alike will be key to making the right decisions for our oceans.

Images via Ocean Health Index

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