What if you could take the pulse of the ocean? What if that measure could integrate all the threats and impacts to the ocean, rather than evaluating each one separately? And instead of dwelling on these negatives, the metric could express the health of the ocean by quantifying and adding up the most important ways the ocean benefits humans. Most importantly, the measure wouldn’t portray humans as separate from nature, but rather embed us deeply in this “seascape” and empower us – all of us – to chart a course for the future of the ocean.
The newly released Ocean Health Index (OHI) may very well get us there. The OHI takes on the big issues – pollution, habitat destruction, invasive species, fishing and climate change – and its findings should cause us all to think hard about what we want the ocean to provide. The short story is that the global ocean scores 60 out of a possible 100 points, with large variation among the 171 countries and territories evaluated. Whether you view the glass as half empty or half full, there is clearly considerable room for improvement.
A range on insights can be had, if you take the time to delve into the study. On average, fisheries are faring poorly, with a score of 25. Many fisheries are overfished or not being sustainably managed. Globally, mariculture (ocean farming) fares even worse, largely because China is so far ahead of the rest of the world in farmed fish production. Biodiversity of the world’s ocean was surprisingly high (83) but this may be the result of using “risk of extinction” (a very low conservation bar) as the relevant yardstick. The status of ocean habitats also fared reasonably well at 88, but this may be because current trends were measured against the status in 1980, when much of the damage had already been done. The ability of the ocean to store carbon is in steep decline; this should be a clarion call to restore coastal habitats like sea grasses, salt marshes, and mangroves that sequester carbon (and fight off climate change and ocean acidification) at a rate 50x greater than the more well-known tropical rain forests.
The closer one looks at the Ocean Health Index, the more questions it raises: What do the numbers really mean? How do we raise the scores? Can we raise the scores? What can I do to raise the score? How did the ocean get this way? And where do we go now? This is pretty heady stuff. At Ocean Conservancy, we plan to look more in depth at answers to these questions over the next few months. Let us know which issues are of most interest to you.
Beyond these deeper questions, the Ocean Health Index is fundamentally a tool for all of us – policymakers, public citizens and industry – to ultimately make more informed and better decisions about the ocean. If we are ready to roll up our sleeves, the OHI should help us work toward a vision for the future of the ocean that we really want.
Now is the time to chart that course – for our own health and the health of the planet.