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Thriving Oceans for Every Country: Regional Assessments

In recent years there has been a surge in global environmental awareness. Numerous consumer campaigns now focus on slowing rampant deforestation in the Amazon, the Congo, and Indonesia. Every year we experience more frequent heat waves, storms, and hurricanes, which remind us that global climate is indeed changing. Celebrities and public figures have endorsed the conservation causes of elephants, tigers, rhinos, and others forcing those issues into the spotlight.  Instinctively, perhaps because we as humans are terrestrial creatures, we focus our attention on what is happening on land.

Yet the ocean covers 72% of the planet and is integral to human well-being. It contains most of the world’s living space, much of its biodiversity, provides us with valuable goods and services (half the oxygen we breathe comes from the ocean), regulates climate, and is part of the carbon cycle (sinks half of our carbon emissions). In recent years, the ocean has captured the world’s attention as evidence highlights the negative impacts of human activities on ocean health. Many government initiatives now emphasize the need for keeping oceans healthy.

© Joanne-Weston

However, governments’ efforts are hindered by the lack of comprehensive methods for measuring the health of their oceans and coasts. While many countries have indicators for monitoring individual ocean sectors (e.g. fisheries, biodiversity, clean waters, etc.), there is no integrated mechanism to analyze all these sectors’ information together. That is, managers cannot effectively assess the cumulative impact of numerous activities on the ocean, nor the effect a management action in a sector may have on other sectors and ocean uses. To address this imperative need, the team at the Ocean Health Index created an innovative framework for Regional Assessments, allowing decision-makers to explore the variables influencing ocean health, within a determined area, in an integrated manner.

Regional Assessments are Ocean Health Index studies conducted at smaller scales where most management actions and policies are executed, such as bays, marine protected areas, municipalities, states, and individual countries. The process of calculating Ocean Health Index 
scores at the regional level engages multiple stakeholders: research institutions, government agencies, policy groups, non-governmental organizations, and civil and private sectors. These groups use local data and priorities to create models and targets for 10 public goals used to assess ocean health, producing scores for each goal that can reflect local conditions better than analyses based on global data. By synthesizing multiple ocean indicators, stakeholders can assess management trade-offs as a result of modifying one or more ocean inputs.

© Jeff Yanover

The information obtained through these regional studies is truly valuable. It enables scientists, managers, policy makers, and the public to 
better understand, track, and communicate the status of local marine ecosystems and to design strategic management actions to improve overall ocean health. The process yields in-depth information on multiple ocean health dimensions and illuminates knowledge and data gaps, facilitating discussion and determination of local priorities among various stakeholders.

If scores are calculated annually, regional assessments serve as a baseline of ocean health, against which decision-makers can understand the efficacy of management actions and policies in improving the overall status of ocean health.

To support this worldwide initiative, the Ocean Health Index’s scientific team created a software and a series of guides. The Toolbox Application is an input-driven software that facilitates Index calculations at any scale. The software can 
be customized to meet a region’s needs and be used to synthesize local data and analyze the spatial distribution of ocean benefits across the study area. The Toolbox can also compare how different management scenarios could affect the goals’ scores, aiding managers and decision makers as they seek to identify the most cost-effective strategies to manage ocean resources. In addition to the Toolbox, the team created four narrative guides, which provide thorough information for every phase of the regional assessment process. 

Thus far three regional assessment case studies have been conducted - the first of which was done for Brazil and published this month. Assessments for the U.S. West Coast and Fiji will be published later this year. The governments of China, Colombia, and Ecuador have already commissioned public agencies to develop Ocean Health Indexes for their countries. Meanwhile, in Canada and Israel, research institutions are leading the process of developing a regional Index.

The Ocean Health Index team continues to work with countries on every continent, multilateral organizations, and foundations to aid the adoption of the Index as a metric to guide policy, investment, and monitor impact on ocean health. Use of the Ocean Health Index, in concert with many ocean improvement initiatives being developed by the United Nations, European Union, and at national and sub-national levels, will play an important role in supporting decisions that promote a healthy ocean with long term benefits for people and the natural communities on which we depend.