Introducing the Ocean (Policy) Health Index

Last week saw the launch of the Ocean Health Index, a comprehensive study by over 60 researchers from various fields that evaluated the ocean within 200 miles of every coastal country in the world. While many studies have assessed various aspects of ocean health, the idea here was to assign a simple, comparable measure of ocean health relevant to people in each area.


Study coauthor Larry Crowder, science director of the Center for Ocean Solutions at Stanford, was quoted in this LA Times piece as saying, “When someone shows up at the ER, there are things people look at: breathing, heartbeat, pulse,” likening the study to an evaluation of vital signs for the ocean.


The study evaluated each country’s waters in 10 categories: see below.



What differentiates this from other academic research is that the health of the ocean wasn’t evaluated in a purely ecological sense. It was evaluated on the basis of human utility. The authors outline their criteria on the Index’s website: “A healthy ocean is one that can sustainably deliver a range of benefits to people now and in the future…A goal scores highest when the maximum sustainable benefit is achieved through methods that do not compromise the ocean’s ability to deliver that benefit in the future.”

(What does it say about us that the remote Jarvis Island, the highest scoring place on earth with an 86 out of 100, is uninhabited and little-used by humans?)


In this National Geographic article study co-author Steven Katona, of the New England Aquarium, and managing director of the Ocean Health Index for Conservation International, was quoted as saying there are two ways a country can score poorly in the category of fisheries: by overfishing, or by not fishing as much as could be sustainably supported.


This Scientific American article said this is a “radical departure from traditional conservation approaches.”


This is because the Index makes the economic argument, as opposed to the intrinsic value argument more typical of conservationists. The difference between these is evident at the gas station. We don’t buy less gas when someone tells us to because it’s a good for the planet. We buy less when prices go up. Economic pressure wins with us humans. And it does in the ocean too. Things like overfishing, and shark finning happen because they are profitable, at least in the short term. The middle of the ocean is the ultimate free market, where there are no referees, and those who can take, do, including predators like bluefin tuna and sharks by the top predators: long range factory fishing boats.


Wealthier countries, no surprise, fared better on the index than developing countries with fewer resources to police their waters; ten of the 11 lowest ranking countries are poor West African nations. But this raises a more complex question: West African waters are being overfished by countries like Russia, China, Japan, and various ships from the European Union – shouldn’t that be reflected in those countries’ own scores?

The score for the world as a whole was 60 (the US was slightly higher at 63), but lead author Benjamin Halpern, of UC Santa Barbara said we shouldn’t view this as a poor grade, the way it would be in school.

Another way to look at it is through the lens of this NY Times Green blog post that said, “Their goal was to find a way to compare different parts of the ocean that are heavily used by humans and determine whether this activity is sustainable or in need of better management.”


Approximately 84 billion pounds of by-catch is discarded each year, almost all by commercial fishing vessels, according to the Index. It's clear our activity is in need of better management. In this case it becomes not so much an ocean health index as an index of humanity’s ocean stewardship – it’s a given we are members of the world’s marine ecosystems, but are we being good members or not?


Katona would seem to agree. “The old model of trying to save nature by keeping people out simply won't work. People and nature are not separate anymore.”


As the human population grows, and humans ability to extract resources from the ocean gets more advanced, ocean policy will become more critical. National Geographic Explorer Michael Lombardi said, “This type of singular measure of health—or perhaps more appropriately, ‘fitness’—will certainly aid in the communication between the science community and policymakers.”


Though not the most quoted, Lombardi’s point is the most important: no matter how you frame the Index, the goal is better understanding of our ocean, human behaviors toward the ocean, and creating sustainable ocean policy. The Ocean Health Index seems like it will be a hugely valuable tool in this.




End note: Although the report was created by researchers and could easily have strayed into wonkiness, it was presented on a cleanly-designed, visually pleasing website that makes the data easy to search and understand. Take a look here:

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