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U.S. West Coast Scores 71 Out of 100 in Ocean Health Index Regional Assessment

Today, the open-access science journal PLOS ONE published the results of the first U.S. West Coast Ocean Health Index regional assessment, which reveals that the region has an overall ocean health score of 71 out of 100. Ocean Health Index Regional Assessments allow for comparison of performance among regions and for comparison of ocean health within a region over time. This assessment provides local and regional decision-makers with a management tool that combines multiple ocean elements into one single framework, allowing them to understand the tradeoffs inherent in decisions and to assess the effectiveness of management actions and policies on ocean health. Furthermore, it supports ongoing regional efforts aimed at addressing ocean and coastal management issues. 

The Ocean Health Index assesses the health of the ocean in terms of the benefits and services it provides to people both now and in the future. Using a scale of 0 to 100, the Index produces scores for each of 10 categories called “goals”.  The Index goals are Food Provision (FP) — Mariculture (MA) and Wild-caught Fisheries (FIS), Artisanal Fishing Opportunities (AO), Natural Products (NP), Carbon Storage (CS), Coastal Protection (CP), Livelihoods & Economies (LIV, ECO), Tourism & Recreation (TR), Sense of Place — Lasting Special Places (LSP) and Iconic Species (ICO), Clean Waters (CW), and Biodiversity — Habitats (HAB) and Species (SPP).

This study focuses primarily on political boundaries, since the majority of data used are collected and reported by agencies within jurisdictional boundaries. Using primarily county-level data, the assessment produced nine goal scores for five sub-regions, which are joined to produce an overall score for each region and an area weighted score for the entire study area (shown in the image above).

The highest scoring goals in the study area are Tourism and Recreation (99) and Livelihoods (89), while Mariculture (20) and Lasting Special Places (37), both of which are sub-goals, received the lowest scores. The study reveals that the current status scores for most goals have declined in the past decade but may improve in the coming 5 years. The Natural Products goal was intentionally excluded because harvest of non-food marine products does not occur at all in most sub-regions and only at very small scales where it is present. High resolution sub-regional level data were used in 80% of data layers, with the remaining 20% coming from global sources.

In addition to using local data, some of the methods were modified in order to produce results that better reflect regional values. The team developed and used locally relevant goal models and reference points for Wild Caught Fisheries, Mariculture, and Tourism & Recreation. Similarly, the study assessed the consequences of using unequal goal weights assigned by regional experts from diverse stakeholder groups. Those experts assigned higher weights to the Sense of Place and Clean Waters goals (represented by thicker petal widths in the diagrams below), but weighing only changed scores by a point or two.

The authors also conducted several scenario analyses to determine how the Index responds to typical management actions (e.g. decreasing land based pollution, increasing marine protected areas, restoring natural coastal habitats or increasing bottom trawl fisheries). Results of the analyses illustrate how the Index can be used to evaluate the potential consequences of management actions as a guide to identifying cost-effective interventions. Scenarios also elucidated the potential tradeoffs over time among goals as a response to different actions and/or policies.

The U.S. West Coast was selected for this assessment as an example of a biologically and economically productive region that is relatively data-rich. Nevertheless, the authors found that data gaps presented a challenge to the study, and remain an obstacle for managers and policy makers. The findings, however, offer a baseline against which to compare the findings of future studies. This approach may help managers predict the potential effectiveness of management actions on overall ocean health and on particular goals. Also, by replacing global data with regional information and matching the scale of assessment to the scale of decision-making, the Ocean Health Index provides a flexible, transparent, and repeatable management tool to help inform decision-making and resource allocation.

The Ocean Health Index assessment was first published at a global scale (NATURE, 2012) with the first annual update issued in 2013. Because the U.S. West Coast regional assessment uses local and regional data, it is not directly comparable to those global Index scores or to other regional assessments. However, qualitative comparisons can be made: a score of 71 for the U.S. West Coast compared to Brazil’s regional score of 60 in Brazil suggests that the U.S. West coast is closer to fully meeting its sustainable goals. Quantitative comparisons of global-level country scores can be done because the same data and methods are used, but regional scores —even though only comparable to the same region on a year-to-year basis — may be more accurate and useful to managers and policy makers.