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Ocean Health Index at SEA®

SEA Semester® Incorporates Ocean Health Index Themes into New Program: The Global Ocean    

Standing on the coast of Spain at Baelo Claudia and looking across the Strait of Gibraltar at Africa, twenty-one U.S. college students recently had an opportunity to consider the impacts that humans have had on the marine and littoral landscape for more than two thousand years. At this site, Romans had an active center for processing thousands of tons of tuna for trade around the Mediterranean. Just a week before at Mallorca, local scientists had reported that after determining the “total allowable catch” for Bluefin tuna in their region of the Mediterranean for the year 2013, it was caught in 48 hours.

SEA®  students approaching Baelo Claudia, a Roman city that processed tuna in the first century AD 

Sea Education Association (SEA) in Woods Hole, Massachusetts, has been taking students to sea for more than forty years and has witnessed changes in the ocean environment that are largely the result of human actions.  In routine net tows, SEA ships have documented increases in marine plastics, and decreases in larval populations of lobsters and eels. Over the last decade, SEA has created new undergraduate SEA Semester programs to examine the impacts of climate change on the ocean, to consider marine biodiversity, and to study issues of environmental and cultural sustainability on Polynesian Islands. In 2013, the organization added to its breadth of programs by expanding the geographic range of its ships: the Corwith Cramer and Robert C. Seamans located, respectively, in the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. A new program, SEA Semester: The Global Ocean was designed to examine how humans have impacted ocean, coastal, and island environments in such disparate ocean basins as the North Atlantic, Mediterranean, and South Pacific. The themes of the Ocean Health Index (OHI) were a perfect place to start, and were incorporated into the curriculum of six new courses.

The first iteration of SEA Semester: The Global Ocean, Europe recently wrapped up in Spain, another is currently in progress in New Zealand, and the third offering will start in January at the SEA campus in Woods Hole. Supplementing SEA’s long history of and commitment to interdisciplinary teaching, early discussions on how to develop the a new program recognized that human actions cannot be understood simply from a scientific perspective, and that courses that gave historical and cultural background were essential.  

A course on Conservation and Management gives an opportunity to talk about ways to solve problems and not simply to acknowledge them. The goals of the SEA faculty were well-served by the thoughtful process that had already gone into the creation of the OHI themes, and incorporating them into the curriculum was aided by conversations with several SEA friends who have been active participants in the OHI. In fact, there are a number of long-standing relationships between SEA and the OHI. Two SEA alumnae are among the architects of the project: Scott Doney, now at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, and Andrew Rosenberg, at the Union of Concerned Scientists. Greg Stone and Steve Katona at Conservation International have worked aboard SEA ships as scientists, and colleagues at the New England Aquarium have collaborated on SEA projects in the Phoenix Island Protected Area and elsewhere. 

Themes of the OHI are woven into six new courses:  

  • MARITIME HISTORY AND CULTURE is built around the themes of Coastal Livelihoods & Economics, and Tourism &Recreation;
  • OCEANS AND GLOBAL CHANGE (and two oceanography lab courses) incorporate Carbon Storage, Clean Waters and Biodiversity; 
  • CONSERVATION AND MANAGEMENT examines Coastal Protection, the need for Clean Waters, and the management of Fisheries—which is covered in two OHI themes;
  • CULTURAL LANDSCAPES AND SEASCAPES A Sense of Place uses the Sense of Place theme of the OHI, as well as the UNESCO “Cultural Landscapes” designation to provide a framework for looking at ways that people relate to both coastal and marine areas. 

Presentation on deck:  Isabel Han and Jennifer Seeley describe their work on ocean plastics to their shipmates. SEA®

Students in the first Global Ocean class came from nineteen different colleges and universities, including Middlebury, Cornell, Williams, Carleton, Boston University, Lawrence, Eckerd, Kenyon, UC Davis, Colgate and Wellesley. The program began with six weeks on the SEA campus in Woods Hole, followed by a six-week cruise aboard the sailing research vessel Corwith Cramer, from Barcelona to Mallorca, through the Strait of Gibraltar to Cadiz on the Atlantic coast of Spain, and then to Madeira and the Canary Islands. During the shore component, Boston Harbor was used as a model to understand the processes by which people alter the coastal landscape. 

Using the extraordinary series of Boston and New England maps collected by Norman Leventhal as a starting place, students traced the development of the port of Boston over more than 350 years. A walking tour of the original waterfront, and a boat tour around the working harbor allowed the group to make onsite observations of information they had gathered through maps and academic sources. 

Student research projects were undertaken to examine the infrastructure necessary to support the shipment of containers, cars, people, and bulk cargoes, and the impact of shipping on the environmental, social and economic areas visited on the cruise. Students found that the same kind of dramatic alterations that had transformed Boston over more than three centuries, had taken place in Barcelona over just the last five decades.  (See timeline on Port of Barcelona website.) Projects included mapping land use for cargo handling and looking at the impact of containerization in Barcelona. Other topics that received attention were the creation of beaches using groins, jetties and breakwaters to support the tourist industry; the development of marinas to handle thousands of private recreational boats in Barcelona and Mallorca; and the management of the water supply on Mallorca as tourism increased from under 100,000 visitors in 1950 to 2,850,000 in 1973 to 9,450,000 last year. In Cadiz, ancient fortifications still define waterfront areas, and three students used old maps to trace them to see how they fit into the modern working harbor.

First SEA® Semester Global Ocean class.

The social impact of an explosive growth of tourism was a constant topic of conversation and the statistics in the ports visited were really astonishing. In Barcelona, a city with under two million residents, tourism boomed from 1.7 million to 1990 to more than 7.4 million in 2012. 2.4 million of Barcelona’s tourists arrived on cruiseships, and the Port has been busy building berthing to accommodate ten big ships at a time. 775 cruise ships arrived last year, with more than 30,000 passengers arriving on a single day in May, and 58,000 over a busy weekend.

There is now clearly a backlash against tourism in Barcelona, which was evident in conversations with locals, in hand-painted posters saying “Don’t rent to tourists” on balconies in Barceloneta, and in numerous websites and films. Part of the discussion among students and faculty was how the “Tourism and Recreation” metric of the Ocean Health Index works, and whether increasing numbers of tourists should raise the score of a nation. While economic impacts can be seen as positive, how should the social and environmental impacts be balanced? A big question was how important clean marine and coastal environments are to cruise ship passengers, and anecdotal information derived from conversations with a small number of them surprised the SEA group; despite traveling on a ship, none of the people approached had actually thought about the environmental impacts of the cruise ship on which they traveled.

SEA ® students photographed in front of Barcelona Custom House.

The “Sense of Place” course looked at protected areas in coastal regions, and also at “iconic species,” to see whether or not people are more willing to protect an area if it is tied to a charismatic animal. The class read Steve Katona’s article on the OHI website, which led to a lively discussion and an interesting start to small research projects while still in Woods Hole. Katona’s article uses national currency and postage stamps as an indicator of what a country thinks about certain “iconic” animals. While New Zealand’s stamps and currency are rich in these animals, those of Spain and Portugal are not.  In fact students couldn’t identify a single iconic species on these sources, but did find a large number of stamps and bills with ships, explorers and maps. This was a good indicator of a different view of the sea of these two nations long involved in colonial enterprises, and inspired a conversation that continued long into the cruise. 

In the “Conservation and Management” course, a long-term project was developed to observe “Human Uses” of coastal and marine areas and to create a census that can be added to on subsequent cruises. Students were consequently observing and noting numbers and kinds of ships, as well as wind turbines, solar installations, harbor infrastructures and other industrial complexes ashore. There were several projects on fisheries, which tie into the “Food Provision” and “Artisanal Fishing Opportunities” themes of the OHI (and the distinction between those metrics was not always clear in the places visited). 

Walking through the fish markets in Cadiz and Madeira, it seemed apparent that fish species that used to be discarded, like skate and dogfish, are now being sold in large numbers, while the traditional staples of cod and herring are in decline. At Madeira, the favorite restaurant fish is “black scabbardfish,” and a local informant reported that this deep-dwelling fish is now being caught in Ireland, Iceland and Japan, as traditional fish from shallower waters are being fished out.The faculty and students on the Spain/Portugal GO trip were extraordinarily fortunate to have been able to collaborate with a number of local scientists and scholars. 

In Barcelona, the Maritime Museum was a great place to begin to understand the nature of seagoing travel in the Mediterranean, and the director Elvira Mata arranged for a tour of the port with “Escola Europea de Short Sea Shipping,” a company that trains professional mariners. Dr. Rosa Balbin of the Instituto Espanol de Oceanografia in Mallorca set up a series of lectures there on research into tuna stocks and on water masses in the western Mediterranean. Dr. Carlos Garcia, at the University of Cadiz, arranged for lectures and tours with scientists, mariners, historians and archaeologists, for a very thorough look at a port with a history of more than 3000 years. In Madeira, Luis Freitas, director of the Whale Museum, shared research on cetacean populations in the region, which were, happily, also observed from the ship.

Chief Scientist Chuck Lea and a student prepare to launch a carousel to collect water samples. SEA®

As this article is written, faculty and students on the New Zealand GO trip are at sea, underway from Dunedin to Lyttleton on New Zealand’s South Island. The New Zealand crew is applying the OHI to a profoundly different seascape from Spain. New Zealand is a young island nation with intriguing natural history, relatively small ports, coastlines, and a complex history of Maori-European relations. The nation’s renowned leadership in sustainable fisheries, marine reserves, and conservation-oriented tourism have provided SEA Semester students with the opportunity to delve deeply into these aspects of the OHI and to critically consider why New Zealand, with an underwhelming 2014 OHI score of 78, does not score as high as some might have expected. The “Artisanal Fishing Opportunities” metric has been particularly useful to New Zealand, Global Ocean students, who have been intrigued by New Zealand’s indigenous Maori people. Students have written policy briefs examining Maori participation in New Zealand’s fisheries and marine reserve management, and spent a day in Dunedin with members of a Maori tribe, the Ngati Tahu. As the voyage is set to complete on December 23, 2014, more details about the OHI observations from this program will be compiled in the near future.

Student Alison Png deploys a Neuston net over the side of the Corwith Cramer.

SEA has long been a leader in documenting plastic debris in the open ocean and 100% of Neuston tows in the North Atlantic on the first Global Ocean trip contained plastic. While the OHI-inspired Global Ocean program is operating in more coastal waters, colleagues at the OHI have indicated an interest in expanding the project to deeper waters and SEA has set up a protocol to collect long-term data to support the effort.  

The launch of the Global Ocean program, using the OHI themes as a framework, has clearly been a success for SEA.  Students responded enthusiastically to the work. They care deeply about the environmental issues facing us and they want to have tools to address them. The necessity of having good data to address human impacts on the environment is a theme that resonated throughout the program. 

Mary Malloy, Ph.D.
Professor of Maritime Studies and Director of the Global Ocean program
6 December 2014; updated 13 Dec 2014

Each SEA Semester voyage features a blog published daily while at sea. To read the blog from this fall’s Global Ocean: Europe, please click here. To stay up-to-date on The Global Ocean: New Zealand voyage, please click here.