A “Check-Up” For the World’s Oceans

Continuing with World Water Week, today is the perfect day to look at how healthy our oceans are. Just a few weeks ago, the Ocean Health Index was published for the very first time. This index was developed by scientists around the world and scores 171 ocean-adjacent countries on ten goals that are considered part of a healthy “human-ocean system.” Countries are evaluated on each goal with a score from 0-100, and the ten goal scores are averaged to provide a country’s overall score. The world’s average score is a 60/100, showing that there is significant room for improvement.

Goals of the Ocean Health Index

The Ocean Health Index does not simply measure the cleanliness of water. It’s purpose is to assess the health of oceans with an eye toward the ecological, social, economic, and political benefits that can be provided to people. The goal of this type of scoring system is to better inform policy decisions. It doesn’t seek to limit human use of water, but rather to promote sustainable uses of global waters. As an added benefit, the index will provide a baseline for yearly “check-ups” on ocean health, and it may help scientists to see the impacts of specific policy and management decisions. This last ability will be key in developing future environmental legislation, as demonstrated causation between an activity and environmental harm is a key component to regulation and enforcement.

10 Goals of a Healthy Human-Ocean System

The ten goals included in the Ocean Health Index are as follows, with the global average score in parentheses:

  • Food Provision (24): Sustainable harvesting of seafood (both wild caught commercial seafood and ocean-farmed seafood)
  • Artisanal Fishing Opportunities (87): Food and jobs for local communities
  • Natural Products (40): Sustainable harvesting of non-food ocean resources used to support local economies and international trade
  • Carbon Storage (75): Well-being and preservation of coastal plant habitats that absorb and store atmospheric CO2 (which in turn slows global warming)
  • Coastal Protection (73): Extent and protection of coastal habitats that safeguard shores from storm damage, flooding, and erosion
  • Coastal Livelihoods and Economies (75): Ability to maintain coastal jobs and revenues
  • Tourism and Recreation (10): Attraction of coastal and marine activities
  • Sense of Place (55): Condition of culturally iconic species and protected places
  • Clean Waters (78): Degree to which waters are polluted by excess nutrients (eutrophication), chemicals, pathogens, and trash
  • Biodiversity (83): Conservation status of marine species, as well as condition of key habitats supporting species richness and biodiversity

High scores in each of these areas are given to countries demonstrating sustainable practices and appropriate utilization of available resources. Thus, for example, both overfishing and underfishing could lower a country’s score because the index prioritizes maximization of an ocean’s potential benefits (both ecological and economic). Based on the global average scores, it appears that overall performance is good on Artisanal Fishing Opportunities, Carbon Storage, Coastal Protection, Coastal Livelihoods and Economies, Clean Waters, and Biodiversity. However, significant improvements are needed in Food Provision, Natural Products, and Tourism and Recreation.

Scores by Country

How do the world’s countries stack up according to the Ocean Health Index? You can check out the full country listing, but here is a quick rundown:

  • The highest score was an 86/100 (Jarvis Islands, a U.S. territory in the Pacific Ocean).
  • The lowest score was 36/100 (Sierra Leone) .
  • The U.S. clocked in at a 63/100. We scored particularly well on Artisanal Fishing Opportunities (97/100), Coastal Protection (79/100), Coastal Livelihoods and Economies (97/100), and Sense of Place (82/100). However, we scored below average for Natural Products (35/100), Carbon Storage (66/100), Tourism and Recreation (1/100), Clean Waters (74/100), and Biodiversity (76/100).
  • Canada had an overall score of 70/100.
  • Russia had an overall score of 67/100.
  • China had an overall score of 53/100.
  • Japan had an overall score of 69/100.
  • Germany had an overall score of 73/100.
  • Areas with lower scores tended to fall in developing areas:
    • Much of Central and South America (except Brazil, Suriname, French Guiana, and Costa Rica)
    • Much of Africa (except Namibia, Egypt, Mauritania, and Seychelles)
    • Much of the Middle East (except Oman, Israel, and UAE)
    • All of Southeast Asia, plus China
    • Surprisingly, much of the Mediterranean fell below average, with the exception of France (which scored 66/100).

Conclusions

The Ocean Health Index offers a comprehensive measure of ocean health and productivity. Michael Lombardi of the American Natural History Museum has compared the index with the concept of Gross Domestic Product (GDP), saying it provides a singular measure of ocean “fitness” that should aid in communications between scientists and policymakers. He also adds that it is a useful metric for non-scientists.

I think the value of the Ocean Health Index is threefold: 1) its ability to provide a big-picture overview of the world’s oceans, taking into account the complex nature of the human and societal relationship with water; 2) its ability to provide useful information to policymakers around the world by giving firm measures on a variety of characteristics, delineating the various priorities that should be addressed by water management policies, and highlighting areas for improvement that may require specific focus; and 3) spotlighting countries that perform particularly well on certain goals, encouraging other countries to replicate successful practices.

While it has been pointed out that some areas of the ocean are less studied than others, the Ocean Health Index provides previously unavailable analysis on a global scale. The scientists behind the index plan to update the information as new data becomes available and issue an updated index each year. Accurate information a critical first step to tackling policy issues, so I hope that world leaders will make use of this valuable data and earnestly work to increase ocean health.

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