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The Ocean Health Index: A Powerful Tool for Conservation Management

Any business owner understands the importance of representing complex data sets with percentiles. Calculations, percentages, scores, and rankings are all essential for helping managers and owners make informed decisions on when, where, and how to best utilize their products and build a better management model – especially if we can cross-examine these numbers with similar businesses or products, and see trends over time.

Until recently, the health of our oceans has been a jumble of data sets unique to every coastal region, yielding a cacophony of benefits to humans versus costs to ocean health and sustainability versus overexploitation. The ocean provides countless jobs, food sources, and recreational activities for every coastal community in the world, and each region has a specific set of threats facing their marine resources. In 2012, a revolutionary tool was unleashed – the Ocean Health Index. The Ocean Health Index is the first comprehensive assessment of global health, and is the result of a fantastic collaboration of expert scientists, policy makers and conservationists. They wanted to create a tool that can be used to identify and compare areas of the ocean that are being used sustainably, and those that are in desperate need of attention and better management. It allows countries to compare their performance with other nations and encourages action to improve ocean health.

How the scores are calculated

So how is it even possible to “score” different parts of the ocean with so many factors to take into account? The index offers viewers an easy-to-interpret scoring system of 0-100 that, in reality, represents a tremendous amount of data. Ten human goals were identified, determined to be the most important factors that would fully represent how humans are benefitting from the oceans and how much the oceans are being harmed. The factors include: fishing opportunities, biodiversity, coastal protection, carbon storage, clean waters, food provision, coastal livelihoods and economies, natural products, sense of place, and tourism and recreation. The areas where each score was calculated encompasses the Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) of each country. The EEZ is the area in which a coastal nation has sole regulatory power over economic and resource management.

Each of these goals is evaluated through careful examination and calculations of the pressures placed by humans, resilience of the species and habitats, the present known status, and the likely future trends, to provide us with a comprehensive yet simplistic picture. The collaborators examined the factors that most affected ocean health, but they also took into account the benefits received by the people of each area. Thus, underutilization may actually lower a score, albeit a bit less than overexploitation.

Ocean Health Index
It is crucial for us to understand the full impact of of human interactions with the oceans.
Image courtesy of Flickr user Tim Pierce.

The best part about the Ocean Health Index?  The ability to adapt and evolve is built right into the system. The scoreboard is not static once a score is determined – rather the calculations are dynamic and reevaluated each year (though they changed little between 2012 and 2013). The index creators can continuously identify better evaluation tools and methods year to year. For example, in 2013 the data sets used were much more specific than those in 2012, when data was merged in some areas for simplicity. But the index was able to revisit the data from 2012 and re-evaluate certain data sets to provide a more accurate score. As the years pass by, we will be able to see the trends over time within each of the ten goals.

What does it all mean?

You’re likely curious about the current overall global index score for all of our oceans – it is 65%. Your first instinct might be to compare this number to a grading system, in which we would consider it to be a flat D, indeed a terrible grade. But it’s important not to compare this number to a letter grade. If you’re reading this blog, you already know there are many threats facing our oceans, but there are also many people and organizations who are doing something to mitigate those threats.

A score of 50% would mean there is an equal amount of negative and positive human influence. 65% means there is quite a lot of positive influence to counteract the negative. Considering the negative effects that ocean enthusiasts are aware of, a score of 95% would have been amazing – but not likely. Likewise, a score of less than 50% would be surprising and devastating considering the major ongoing conservation efforts occurring both regionally and globally.

How do we use it?

This is the important question. The Ocean Health Index was constructed as a way for policy makers and ocean health managers to better understand how we are utilizing our oceans. Anyone who draws resources from the ocean should understand this index and what it means. Now the effort must be made to ensure that it is actually being utilized and updated.

The Ocean Health Index is an incredibly powerful tool. It is not perfect of course, but it’s an amazing step towards better global ocean conservation management and over time it will evolve. It is important to recognize that the Ocean Health Index is not an ecological assessment – rather it takes a rounded look at ocean health with a strong human element. A comprehensive picture of human interactions with the ocean is difficult to imagine and even more difficult to portray.

The overall score of each region gives a great snapshot of general ocean health. But the real value of the Ocean Health Index is achieved by looking at the breakdown of each of the ten human goals and using the comparative feature to cross-examine different regions. For a project on such a massive scale, it is difficult to provide the absolute specifics on how the scores are achieved in each region – but the value of the index is found in its ability to help point us in the right direction, focus our efforts on the areas that need it, and explore further collaboration with other nations and institutions.

For example, we can easily compare the United States and Mexico to discover the areas where each can learn from each other and work together towards higher scores. Both countries rank in the 60s, but vary greatly in regards to the ten human goals. Coastal protection is one that immediately draws the eye, or the condition of habitats that protect the coast against storm waves and flooding. Mexico has a score of 34 while the U.S. boasts a score of 80. Yet Mexico has an exceptionally high score of 65 in tourism and recreation, much higher than the 45 of the U.S. – certainly higher than the global score of 39. Each of these scores can be examined to determine the significance and inspire us to understand why Mexico has a lower score in coastal protection, yet a higher score in tourism and recreation. As tourism is one of the fastest growing industries in the world, it seems important that certain nations should work towards expanding their tourism sector and capitalizing on this growth. Yet if Mexico is to sustain it’s tourism industry, it is vital that they focus their efforts on improving habitats to better provide coastal protection.

We cannot, of course, force these collaborations, but having a tool like the Ocean Health Index may be able to spur international industries to take action and make connections themselves.

A global collaboration

Our oceans are simply magnificent in shear size, biodiversity, and how much they provide for humans. Our activities and how we utilize natural resources directly affect ocean health, and there is an immense need to understand this influence better. For us to preserve the  magnificence of the seas, a united global collaboration effort is needed. The Ocean Health Index is simply a launch pad to strengthen this effort. Join us in celebrating a united future for ocean conservation. Buy your seafood from distributors that care about the environment, such as Pucci Foods.

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