Ocean Health Index Saves Our Waters
by jon bowermaster
Despite the recent distraction of electoral politics, the ocean’s health remains a focus for dozens of DC-based environmental policy groups, think tanks, and congressional committees. And the Chesapeake region’s tourism and fishing industries—not to mention everyone who loves dining on locally caught seafood—also care deeply about the well-being of the watershed, and for good reason: According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the commercial seafood industry in Maryland and Virginia contribute $3.39 billion in sales, $890 million in income, and almost 34,000 jobs to our local economy.
Yet man has put a great deal of stress on the ocean. We have carelessly overfished it, polluted it, dumped carbon dioxide into it, and heated it up. Perhaps the fact that it covers more than 70 percent of the planet has allowed us to think that the water has an infinite ability to absorb toxic runoff, devour billions of pieces of plastic, or absorb 24 million tons of carbon dioxide a year while providing us with valuable resources, ranging from food to medicines. Virginia-based marine biologist Dr. Sebastian Troëng, vice president of marine conservation at Conservation International, is concerned about the health of the waterways nearest to the capital. In particular, he cites the Chesapeake Bay, which has been impacted by habitat degradation, the depletion of shellfish and other marine life, and the excess nutrients added to the ocean from agricultural runoff, which is killing marine life. “It’s been estimated,” says Troëng, “that in precolonial times, before Captain John Smith mapped the Bay in the early 17th century, there were so many oysters [that] they could filter all the water in the Bay in only 3.3 days. Overfishing and habitat destruction mean that by 1988, it would take the remaining oyster population 325 days to achieve the same feat.”
To stem the abuse, some of the greatest minds in the science, conservation, and business worlds have combined forces to conduct research on the ocean’s condition—all in an effort to encourage the cleanup of some of its worst problems. Results of the group’s study, dubbed the Ocean Health Index, were announced in August. The Index is the creation of Conservation International, the National Geographic Society, the New England Aquarium, and the National Center for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis.
Starting in 2008, more than 60 scientists traveled the globe evaluating ecological, social, economic, and political factors for every coastal country and adding up the results. One hundred seventy-one “exclusive economic zones” (EEZs) surrounding countries with ocean coastlines were studied, and the resulting data were analyzed using 10 different criteria, from levels of coastal protection to biodiversity to tourism and recreation. Each country was given an overall grade between 1 and 100 that rates how it measures up. The goal is to incentivize countries, regions, and industries to improve their scores by cleaning up existing problems and investing in ocean protection.
On a scale of 1 to 100, 100 being the best score, the highest grade was given to isolated Jarvis Island in the South Pacific, with a tally of 86; the lowest went to the African nation of Sierra Leone, which scored 36. The US scored 63, tying it for 26th, wedged in between Pitcairn and the Ukraine. The average score was 60, or as Conservation International’s Vice President and Chief Scientist for Oceans—and one of the originators of the Index—Dr. Greg Stone puts it, a “D.” And it wasn’t just remote islands that scored well. Germany ranked 4th with a score of 73, suggesting its marine region is well protected. While the US rated high in coastal protection, it didn’t do as well in quality food supply, clean water, and tourism.
The group that dreamed up the Index hopes it will become the lead indicator used by policymakers and conservationists around the world as they try to assess what’s wrong with their respective seascapes—and how to fix them. Dr. Ben Halpern, a marine biologist at the University of California, Santa Barbara, oversaw the project and wrote the peer-reviewed paper, introducing it in the journal Nature. He says the response to the research has already been “remarkably positive and excited… You can’t manage something like ocean health without actually having a tool to measure it. It’s not a panacea that’s going to solve all problems,” he adds, “but it will definitely help in the process of trying to fix things.”
While admitting he was “surprised” by the Index’s average score of 60, Halpern said the reaction from some corners of the world has been swift: Marine biologists with the Colombian government (ranked 94th) immediately invited a team from Conservation International to advise it on how it can improve its score. The ratings are not relevant only to coastal dwellers; anyone who eats fish, escapes to the beach, or worries about the planet’s weather patterns should be concerned about the ocean’s health.
Stone agrees that now is the perfect time to be releasing this seemingly straightforward rating mechanism. “I’ve never seen a moment as open, with so much opportunity as this for the oceans in my life. Even within the last several months the tempo has picked up, with James Cameron exploring the bottom of the Mariana Trench [the deepest place on earth] and new marine-protected areas being announced with regularity.” He is hopeful that the Index will prove to be a missing link between talk and action, though he admits measuring direct change to come from it will not be easy. “One thing to be clear on: We are not trying to compare the health of the ocean today to a time when it was pristine, thousands of years ago. That’s history. We are in an era where humans dominate the ocean, and we are the first to admit we are measuring a troubled system.”
The fact is that until now, countries have not been able to accurately measure the benefits to people that the ocean provides—including seafood, coastal protection, jobs, and tourism—making it difficult to pinpoint where to focus money and energy for environmental ills. The Index, Troëng suggests, allows countries “to compare their performance with other countries and it provides a framework to allow them to pursue economic growth and human well-being, and maintain environmental quality at the same time.
“Also, there is nothing like good old-fashioned competition between neighboring countries to encourage actions to improve ocean health. I have already spoken to top government officials in five countries who are interested in the Ocean Health Index approach and [its] results, so there is definitely appetite for the Index and its scores.”
photography by sterling zumbrunn (ship); photography by thinkstock (bay)
Celebrating the White House Correspondents’ Association’s annual dinner at Carnegie Library.