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From Anger to Hope: My Ocean Health Index Journey

More than 40 years ago, Buckminster Fuller wrote: “Now there is one outstandingly important fact regarding Spaceship Earth, and that is no instruction book came with it.” My hope is that the Ocean Health Index can help rectify that lack. This is the story of my involvement in this first-of-its kind measure of ocean health around the world. 

My “Ocean Health Index Journey” has had many twists and turns.  It began four years ago, when Greg Stone and the Ocean Health Council commissioned me to develop a draft model for a method to measure the overall condition of the ocean—an Ocean Health Index.

My review of the literature quickly revealed that the world has long been aware of the major challenges and insults to ocean health, but that no one had tackled anything of the scope proposed. Countless authors of scientific papers, international treaties, notes from global environmental summit meetings and media reports had bemoaned the same issues—overfishing, habitat loss, pollution, invasive species and climate change—for decades. But despite lots of studies and much handwringing, actions to reduce those pressures were slow and scattered—and it made me angry.

I wondered why, as a species, we kept lugging so much environmental baggage on our way to the future.  Why did we add to it every year instead of finding ways to lighten our load on the planet?

Dr. Steven Katona, Managing Director of the Ocean Health Index

Since oceans cover 70% of our planet, making and tracking an Ocean Health Index seemed like it might be a useful part of lightening our load and turning toward sustainability. So I began working with colleagues to make an Index that identified and measured the various pressures on the oceans, and how quickly they were changing for better or worse.  At one of our early meetings, someone asked—“what about people?” We also began incorporating measures regarding human well-being. 

Meanwhile, a parallel effort was developing on the West coast, where the David and Lucille Packard Foundation funded an Ecosystem Health Working Group at the University of California at Santa Barbara’s National Center for Ecosystem Analysis and Synthesis (NCEAS).  I was able to join that group.

The Working Group developed a broader perspective on ocean health, centered on the premise that “A healthy ocean sustainably delivers a range of benefits to people now and in the future.” They identified ten key benefits to humans for study.

By 2010, we realized that two different measures of ocean health was too much of a good thing, so we merged the East coast and West perspectives into a single project. The combined team sifted through and identified available data, and devised ways to measure delivery of the ten benefits. Under the direction of Karen McLeod, Andy Rosenberg, Larry Crowder, Michael Fogarty and Ben Halpern, and with help from many other scientists including those at the University of British Columbia’s Sea Around Us project, databases were constructed, data were quality controlled, normalized and fed into programs for calculating goal scores, and technical problems were identified and solved. 

There have been countless meetings, workshops, consultations, phone conferences, webinars, symposia and communications of all kind during the past four years, and boy, have I learned a lot. My literature research on the many components included in the Index has been enormously interesting, revealing new and surprising details on nearly all parts of the human-ocean system and their interconnections. Working with so many bright, creative and dedicated people from different fields has been extremely stimulating and rewarding. Watching colleagues more quantitatively skilled than I turned concepts into equations, populate them with carefully curated data, perform sophisticated statistical tests on the results and document everything to make the entire process transparent has been tremendously educational.  

Vessel sailing in Alor, Indonesia.

I am really struck by how convergence on acknowledging humans as part of the ocean ecosystem and defining ocean health in terms of the sustainable delivery of benefits to people entailed the most significant mind shifts.  Many of us, including me, began the project with the target of restoring the ocean to its pristine pre-human condition.  But other scientists, economists and sociologists on the team convinced us that such a baseline would be impossible to achieve given today’s human population of 7 billion, with 2 billion more expected in coming decades. 

It became clear that if the ocean (and all its ecosystems) did not help to improve well-being, natural systems would ultimately suffer—both because they would be less valued and because poor, hungry people would eventually do whatever they had to in order to survive, with unfortunate results for nature and ecosystem services. The human-centered, utilitarian nature of the Index may still grate on some people—but on the whole, I believe most will likely come to terms with it the more they think about it.

It was a satisfying day when a scientific paper describing the project and its results was published on August 16, 2012 in Nature and the Ocean Health Index website went live on the same day. Other papers related to the methods or results have been published (e.g. Samhouri et al. 2012) or are in preparation.

The Ocean Health Index does not mandate specific actions that should be taken, but serves as a dashboard indicator for the planet, showing the status of key system functions, suggesting where things are getting better or worse, and pointing out what needs attention most urgently.  It also provides information that can help inform actions that coiuld be taken by management units at local, state, national or international levels.

I’m still angry about the slow (and in some cases, nearly non-existent) pace of actions toward improvement, the intransigence of climate change deniers, and the unwillingness of many vested interests to look at the broad social and ecological implications of their “self-centered” policies and actions. Nevertheless, the Ocean Health Index project has made me feel very cautiously optimistic that beneficial changes may come. 

I’ve found many examples of actions by individuals, communities, non-governmental organizations and governments that have improved aspects of ocean health at local, national (sometimes) and global scales. Top governmental officials from many countries, including China, Brazil, Colombia, Ecuador, Fiji, the Nairobi Convention nations and others, have expressed interest in the Ocean Health Index and are exploring whether to use the model as a management tool with country-level data. 

Less than half a year after its launch, this encourages my hope for the future.