The world's oceans provide society with so many benefits: food, recreation, jobs, tourism dollars, plus environmental benefits such as carbon storage. And let's not forget about pure beauty.
And now finally, we have a way of measuring how healthy oceans are -- and how well they can keep giving us these benefits.
Over the last two years, dozens of scientists, policymakers and conservationists in the United States and Canada worked to develop the Ocean Health Index, which they described in a paper published in Nature.
They then scored oceans all over the world, giving oceans worldwide a score of 60 out of 100. Among the 133 countries with countries, the worst score went to Sierra Leone (36) and the highest to Jarvis island, an uninhabited spot near Hawaii (86). The coastline of the U.S. got a score of 63.
“You can’t manage something like ocean health without actually having a tool to measure it,” Ben Halpern, director of the Center for Marine Assessment and Planning at the University of California, Santa Barbara and one of the leaders of the indexing project, told The New York Times.
The index focused on 10 benefits oceans provide people, such as food, jobs, carbon sequestration and beauty, plus awarded points for clean waters and biodiversity. Sustainability of its usage was a big factor in a region's score.
To score each country, a group of more than 30 scientists gathered data from a number of sources: economic data from the United Nations and satellite data on ocean temperature from the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. They defined each region by a shoreline on one side and 200 nautical miles out to sea on the other.
Study coauthor Larry Crowder, science director of the Center for Ocean Solutions at Stanford, compared the index to a hospital visit that begins by looking at a patient's vital signs: "When someone shows up at the ER, there are things people look at: breathing, heartbeat, pulse," he told The LA Times.
Previous ways to measuring ocean health focused on the ways humans have damaged the ecosystem, whether by polluting it or driving species to extinction.
The index doesn't just give one score. Individual countries can determine which factors are most important to them and weight the score to prioritize them.
For instance, according to the New York Times,
"If a country thinks the best way to treat to the ocean is to preserve it, it can weight conservation factors more heavily in its score. If a country thinks the best use for the ocean is to extract resources from it, it can weight those factors more heavily."
This index is more focused around various goals that the users of that particular ocean may have: for instance, prioritizing coastal jobs might harm the score for clean water but increase the overall score.
"The old model of trying to save nature by keeping people out simply won't work," study coauthor Steven Katona, managing director of the Ocean Health Index for the nonprofit environmental group Conservation International based in Arlington, Va., told The LA Times. "People and nature are not separate anymore."
How countries scored
Developing nations, which tend to have fewer resources to plan and control ocean usage, tended to have lower scores, and developed nations generally had higher scores. Britain scored 61; India, 52; and China, 51.
There were some exceptions to these trends: the Seychelles and Suriname scored high (73 and 69, respectively), while Poland and Singapore had relatively low scores (42 and 48, respectively). Singapore and Poland's water are suffering from a combination of pollution, overfishing, lack of coastal protection, and other problems.
Dr. Halpern said that he was surprised that the global score was 60. According to National Geographic, "he said it leaves a lot of room for improvement, yet it also shows hope in the face of gloom and doom from the advocacy community."
In the U.S., there was regional variability. The West Coast got higher marks, while the Gulf Coast scored lower because it had not invested in ocean protection. But overall, the U.S. is doing well when it comes to coastal protection and coastal economics, but could improve in the areas of food supply and clean water.
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thumbnail: Artisanal fisher (Conservation International/photo by Sterling Zumbrunn)