Updates> SOSF updates> Ocean Health Index Assesses State of Our Seas
Foundation Update

Ocean Health Index Assesses State of Our Seas

Using a new comprehensive index designed to assess the benefits to people of healthy oceans, scientists have evaluated the ecological, social, economic, and political conditions for every coastal country in the world. Their findings, published recently in the journal Nature, show that the global ocean scores 60 out of 100 overall on the Ocean Health Index. Individual country scores range widely, from 36 to 86. The highest-scoring locations included 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 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."

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 we derive from the ocean. Instead of simply assuming any human presence is negative, it asks what our impacts mean for the things we care about. More than 30 collaborators from universities, non-profit organizations, and government agencies, led by NCEAS and Conservation International, pulled together data on the current status and likely future condition for factors such as 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.

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 Karen McLeod, one of the lead authors who is affiliated with COMPASS, a team of science-based communication professionals. "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.

"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.’"

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," 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."

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," 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 10 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."

More information about the Ocean Health Index, including individual scores by country and as well as category, can be found on the OHI website here.