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It’s Complicated

Measuring the Health of the Oceans


People are obsessed with the ocean. The Discovery Channel lures in viewers with tantalizing specials like Shark Week. There is just something about the ocean that inspires love, fascination, and terror. Recently, Santa Barbara locals were reminded of some of the things we do not understand about goings-on in the ocean. Warnings were posted up on beaches due to several great white shark sightings. This was something out of the ordinary and spurred speculation.

A group of scientists from UCSB, in conjunction with environmental organizations and researchers from around the country and the globe, are seeking to put a spotlight on our relationship with the ocean. They have produced the first comprehensive index describing the health of global oceans and our interaction with it.

Cat Neushul

The Ocean Health Index: The Ocean Health Index is designed to evaluate the oceans according to ecological, social, economic, and political indicators. The focus is on the complex relationship between people and the ocean. Ben Halpern, a lead author of the index and an ecologist at UCSB who does research for the National Center for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis and the Marine Science Institute, said, “We’re not just the problem but a major part of the solution, too.”

In a video explaining the index’s purpose, Halpern said, “We need an ocean health index to help provide managers and policy makers, and the public a way to pull together all the pieces of what affects the ocean and how we are benefiting from them.”

Each of the 171 countries and territories evaluated in the index were assessed on 10 criteria: food provision, artisanal fishing opportunities, natural products, carbon storage, coastal protection, sense of place, coastal livelihoods and economies, tourism and recreation, clean waters, and biodiversity. The index puts a premium on human experience. For example, it assigns importance to a country’s or territory’s sense of place, an aspect of a people’s cultural identity.

Most of the data used for the research could be up to five years old due to the difficulty of compiling up-to-date information. The scientists involved in the study said the data provides a snapshot and baseline information for policy makers.

“The Ocean Health Index is like the thermometer of the ocean,” said Enric Sala, an oceanographer. “It will allow us to take the temperature to know what is going on at the global level, trying to integrate different impacts, including overfishing, invasive species, coastal development, and climate change.”

Here is how the United States fares in this report. Overall, the United States scored 63 out of 100, with a global ranking of 26. It received a 25 for food provision, 82 for sense of place, 74 for clean waters, and 76 for biodiversity. The highest-scoring area, the uninhabited Jarvis Island, scored an overall total of 86. Jarvis Island received a 98 for coastal protection, 82 for sense of place, 78 for clean water, and 86 for biodiversity.

What Does This Mean?: According to the Ocean Health Index, our dependence on the ocean, and vice versa, is staggering: The ocean accounts for 99% of the space occupied by life on our planet, and 97% of the water. It produces half of the oxygen, and it regulates our climate.

With our very existence dependent on the health of the ocean, it behooves us to learn more about it. This index is just a first step. Until we fully understand our relationship with the ocean, we won’t be able to protect it or ourselves.

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