from The Internationalist and International Institutions and Global Governance Program

Sea Change: A New Tool for Measuring Ocean Health

August 20, 2012

Blog Post

More on:

Oceans and Seas


Climate Change

I spent late July alongside the Bay of Fundy, marveling at the world’s most spectacular tides. But the power of the sea can be misleading. The world’s oceans may look omnipotent, but they are all too vulnerable to the short-sighted actions of mankind. As I wrote last summer from Norway’s  Lofoten Islands, the oceans are in deep crisis, thanks to rampant overfishing, calamitous pollution, and unprecedented acifidication induced by climate change.

Fortunately, a new tool has emerged to help us better understand the degradation of the world’s oceans and their immense importance to all species—not least Homo sapiens. The just-released Ocean Health Index analyzes how well countries are managing their coastal seas, measuring their performance across ten widely held public goals for healthy oceans. What makes the index unique—and for some environmentalists controversial—is its explicit recognition that there is no possibility of keeping the oceans in some immaculate state of nature, unaffected by human hands and activities. The index takes for granted that humans will continue to exploit the oceans for a variety of economic, recreational, and spiritual objectives. Its purpose is to let policymakers know whether current approaches to exploiting and managing the oceans are sustainable.

In the words of Benjamin Halpern, who led the project:

“People are now fundamentally integrated into every ecosystem on Earth. As such, nature not only includes people but also must address the needs of those people. This perspective…represents a radical departure from the goal that has driven ocean and land conservation efforts for centuries—to protect or return nature to a pristine state. In the 21st century, an era that many are calling the Anthropocene, that goal is impossible, and even counterproductive….For conservation and management to be successful, we need to change our relationship with nature, from trying to lock it away to using and enjoying it in a practical but necessarily sustainable way.”

To measure the “health” of the ocean in each country’s exclusive economic zone (generally, two hundred miles out to sea), the researchers identified ten categories of benefits that oceans provide to human populations, ranging from local fishing opportunities and storage of atmospheric carbon to preservation of biodiversity and tourism and recreation. The index then aggregates scores across all ten indicators to give final marks to some 171 nations and territories.

The overall conclusions are relatively optimistic, compared with some past assessments that predicted “unprecedented loss of species comparable to the great mass extinctions of prehistory.”

Overall, the world earned an average score of 60 out of one hundred, with tiny Jarvis Island (a U.S. territory in the Pacific) receiving the global high of 86. Germany ranked not far behind, at 73, demonstrating that “the index rewards ‘sustainable use’ as well as ‘conservation.’” Unsurprisingly, developing countries with poor governance or recent histories of violent conflict ranked lower: Sierra Leone, Liberia, and the Ivory Coast earned scores of 36, 37, and 38, respectively. And yet not all developed countries fared well, with Singapore and Poland earning 48 and 42, respectively.

For its part, the United States came in twenty-seventh with a 63. Notably, the Gulf Coast pulled down the U.S. average, given unbridled offshore oil drilling, pollution from sewage plants and agricultural fertilizer, and even discarded chemical weapons.

Since the index will be recalculated annually, it will provide a useful standard to evaluate responsible ocean stewardship in coming years, both in the United States and other maritime nations. The index should gain policy attention at the Conference of the Parties to the Convention on Biological Diversity in October, and could also inform the first global integrated marine assessment, scheduled to be undertaken in the next UN General Assembly.  It should also provide a useful analytical tool to support the World Bank-sponsored “Global Partnership for Oceans,” launched in February by former Bank President Robert Zoellick.

Finally, the Ocean Health Index should empower citizens around the world to hold their leaders accountable when it comes to protecting the world’s marine environment for future generations. The index is yet another valuable step toward ensuring that the ecosystem services provided by nature are considered, rather than ignored, in the world of public policy.