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Colombia makes strides on developing its first Ocean Health Index Independent Assessment

When we think of oceans and coasts, we often think of the beautiful sandy beaches where we would like to vacation, or perhaps we might think about whales, dolphins, or sharks. But few of us probably think about the abundant goods and services we humans receive from these vital ecosystems: transportation, ports and harbors, fishing, mariculture, energy, coastal protection, tourism, whale watching, carbon storage, sense of place, employment, and biodiversity. The human activities depending on healthy oceans are countless, so it is not a surprise that many of them can conflict with one another to the detriment  of our much-needed ocean and coastal natural capital. Such  conflicts, highlight  the need to find a sustainable balance that allows us to continue obtaining a range of benefits from the ocean today and in the future

Participants from all of Colombia's coastal regions and from twelve government agencies and scientific institutions

From 1950 to 2015, the world population increased from 2.5 billion to 7.3 billion, or by 190%. At the same time, the global average life expectancy grew from 46.9 years to 76.6 years, the size of the global middle class has tripled, and fish utilization has grown five fold. These unprecedented changes in human populations have caused the decline of many coastal habitats, such as mangroves, 20% of which were lost between 1980 and 2005. Yet, humans remain as dependent on healthy oceans as they did 100 years ago; in fact, 90% of fishing jobs occur in small scale fisheries.

It is no news that our oceans and coasts around the world are changing at unprecedented rates: overfishing, habitat destruction, pollution, climate change, invasive species, and social pressures are some of the main factors affecting our oceans. For decades now, scientists have diligently collected millions, if not billions, of data points to help understand the health of our oceans. But, how do we comprehensively measure ocean health? And, anyhow, what is a healthy ocean? One without human pressures? The truth is that there is one species that dominates this planet and that is us. We all think of a healthy ocean as one that is pristine, however, even in the most remote corners (or depths) of the world we find human impacts, so a healthy ocean includes humans as integral parts of marine ecosystems everywhere in the world. Recognizing this,  many policies (from global to local) intend to achieve healthy oceans. However, most lack a comprehensive means to measure its health. 

Clearly there is a growing need to change the status quo and integrate indicators from ecological, economic, and social dimensions. At the same time, we need to better understand not only the cumulative pressures that decrease health, but also the  resilience actions---regulations, treaties and other social factors--- that can reduce those debilitating pressures. We also need to assess the ways that  the various components of the ocean  respond to our management actions. 

The Ocean Health Index (OHI) originated in response to these needs in ocean and coastal management. By assessing A PORTFOLIO OF PUBLICLY HELD GOALS ON A SCALE OF 0 TO 100, the Index indicates how sustainably people are using the ocean relative to management targets set by stakeholders

Colombia, since 2012, has taken a leadership role among countries by being one of the first major ocean players to announce its decision to integrate the Index as one of its ocean and coastal decision-support tools. This has been three years in the making: countless meetings, discussions with government officials, hours of gathering data and information, reaching out to key stakeholders, and facilitating technical trainings.  Colombia just took  another important step in organizing its actions around ocean health. In early September, under the leadership of the Colombian Commission for the Oceans (CCO) and with the collaboration of Conservation International, Colombia facilitated a two-day multi-stakeholder process to develop a national independent Ocean Health Index assessment (OHI+). This workshop also served as a forum for government institutions to work towards a healthy blue economy, a priority established by Colombia’s Ministry of the Environment and Sustainable Development. One of the workshop’s objectives  was to establish, through thematic groups, a broad matrix that defines the indicators needed to calculate the Colombian Ocean Health Index. When completed, the results will allow scientists, managers, politicians, and the public to better understand, monitor, and communicate the status of local marine ecosystems, as well as the human activities that  depend on them.  In Colombia, the National Administrative Department for Statistics (DANE) is leading the effort to design, build, and interpret ocean-related data. Throughout the workshop DANE representatives emphasized the importance of the National Statistics System, an indispensable tool for social and economic development of the country.

The CCO brought together representatives from all regions of the country (Atlantic, Pacific, and Islands regions), as well as the Ministry of Housing, Ministry of Health, Ministry of Environment and Sustainable Development, General Maritime Directorate, National Natural Parks, Colombian Observatory of Science and Technology, National Fund for Tourism, Unit of Mining and Energy Planning, National Ocean and Coastal Research Institute, and the National Authority of Fishing and Aquaculture.

Participants discuss the contributions of oceans to national coastal economies and livelihoods

Because improving ocean health is a process and not an action, OHI is enabling Colombia to engage all the key stakeholders involved in ocean and coastal management, strengthening the technical and managerial capacities of key people, providing a well structured platform to organize information, and facilitating a forum for diverse actors to articulate their various values and perspectives to improve ocean and coastal governance.

Over the next few months, the CCO and DANE will be working together to finalize the methodological indicator information sheets, which will endow Colombia with a standardized set of indicators it can repeatedly use to assess the health of its oceans using the OHI framework. Key stakeholders will convene once again to collaboratively establish a set of comprehensive sustainable management targets (reference points), which will help determine the current status of all ten components relative to the desired optimal status. A technical team will then have the arduous task of synthesizing all these parameters to produce the country’s first OHI+ study, which will serve as a baseline for decision-making, identifying geographic and thematic priorities, and upon which stakeholders can assess the progress made through management interventions and policies. 

A visual facilitation tool summarizing the outcomes of the workshop