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WHOI Scientist Contributes to Nature Study on Ocean Health

New index provides first global assessment combining natural and human dimensions of sustainability

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August 15, 2012

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WHOI Senior Scientist Scott Doney is one of several contributors to a new comprehensive index designed to assess the benefits to people of healthy oceans worldwide.

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 humans derive from the ocean.

Their findings, published in Nature today, 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.

“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.  But we can’t think of nature and human activity as two separate things,” says Doney, whose expertise is in ocean chemistry and biogeochemistry.

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 dialog 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 may actually get biological systems to remove carbon from the atmosphere.

Determining whether a score of 60 is better or worse than one would expect is less about the 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,” says lead author Dr. 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.”

“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,” says Dr. 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.”

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, ten ‘shared goals’ define the health of the ocean as its ability to provide such benefits now and in the future.

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,” says Dr. 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.”

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,” says Dr. 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 Dr. McLeod.

This 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,” says Dr. Andrew Rosenberg, another of the lead authors and a former member of the US 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.”

According to Dr. Jake Rice, with the Department of Fisheries and Oceans, Canada, who was not involved in the study, "No index, by itself, can be a sufficient guide to case by case decision-making. However, the Index can inform the public policy dialogue that is essential to sound governance. Moreover, the Index will improve and adapt with use and experience. All who care about the health of the oceans and the well-being of human societies that depend on them, should be looking forward to both the near-term benefits we can take from this work, and to the evolution of the Index as we gain experience with it."

The authors readily acknowledge methodological challenges in calculating the Index, but emphasize it represents a critical step forward. “We recognize the Index is a bit audacious. With policy-makers and managers needing tools to actually measure ocean health—and with no time to waste—we felt it was audacious by necessity,” said Dr. Halpern.

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The authors and project team have created an extensive website to view and explore results and learn more about ocean health (http://oceanhealthindex.org), and a web-portal for downloading all data and results used in the project, housed at NCEAS, at UC Santa Barbara, CA. (http://ohi.nceas.ucsb.edu/data).  

The Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution is a private, independent organization in Falmouth, Mass., dedicated to marine research, engineering, and higher education. Established in 1930 on a recommendation from the National Academy of Sciences, its primary mission is to understand the oceans and their interaction with the Earth as a whole, and to communicate a basic understanding of the oceans' role in the changing global environment.

Originally published: August 15, 2012