Ocean Health Index Saves Our Seas
by jon bowermaster
Whether you live on a beach or, like Chicagoans, at 600 feet above sea level, it should come as no surprise that during the past century mankind has put a severe strain on the planet’s one and only ocean. We have carelessly overfished it, polluted it, dumped carbon dioxide into it, and heated it up. Though it covers more than 70 percent of the planet we have long treated the ocean like a giant landfill, fooling ourselves into thinking it has an ability to infinitely absorb toxic runoff, billions of pieces of plastic, 24 million tons of carbon dioxide a year, and still somehow miraculously heal itself all the while providing us with valuable resources ranging from food to medicines.
To stem the tide of abuse, some of the brightest minds in the worlds of science, conservation, and business have joined forces to come up with a way to encourage cleaning up some of the worst of the ocean’s problems. Their solution is the Ocean Health Index, an in-depth study of ocean health, based on 171 “exclusive economic zones” (EEZs) surrounding countries with marine coastlines. Each country is given a grade between 1 and 100. The goal of assigning these grades is to incentivize countries and businesses to clean up and invest in ocean protection.
At the forefront of the OHI is Chicago native William “Beau” Wrigley Jr. and his wife, Heather, both of whom are involved financially and ideologically. By his own admittance, Beau has never thought of himself as being particularly green. Although he loves the ocean (he has been a scuba diver since he was a teen), he is first and foremost a businessman, investor, and philanthropist. “Today I find it more difficult to find coral reefs that are intact, harder to find big fish or sometimes any fish at all,” he said from his North Michigan Avenue office. “The truth is we’ve got a crisis on our hands in the degradation of the ocean and the simultaneous decline in jobs, health, and resources. Ocean health is a national security issue. This has got to be worrisome to businessmen and governments alike.”
Wrigley insists the index is not just more media hype but an absolute necessity because “a healthy ocean is an imperative for the future,” he says. “But I understand that it’s hard for people to get alarmed by what’s happening to the ocean because it can look so deceptive. From the surface everything looks very calm, clean. Most people have no idea what’s going on below the ocean’s surface where things are going very, very wrong.”
Announced in August, the initial OHI was created through a partnership of Conservation International, the National Geographic Society, New England Aquarium, and the National Center for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis. It began in 2008, when more than 60 scientists traveled the globe evaluating ecological, social, economic, and political factors for every coastal country.
The highest score, 86, was given to isolated Jarvis Island in the South Pacific; the lowest went to the African nation of Sierra Leone, with a score of 36. The US scored 63, tying it for 26th on the list, snuggled between Pitcairn and the Ukraine. The average score was 60, or as Conservation International executive vice president of Conservation and Research and Chief Scientist for Oceans, Greg Stone, put it: a “D.” Remote islands weren’t the only places that scored well; Germany ranked fourth with a score of 73, suggesting its marine region is well protected. While the US scored well in coastal protection, it didn’t do so well in food supply, clean water, and tourism.
The group that dreamed up the OHI hopes it will become the lead indicator used by policy makers and conservationists around the world as they try to assess what’s wrong with their marine areas and how to fix them. Dr. Ben Halpern, a marine biologist at the University of California, Santa Barbara, oversaw the project and wrote the peer-reviewed paper introducing it in Nature; he says the response to the research has already been “remarkably positive and exciting.” He adds: “You can’t manage something like ocean health without actually having a tool to measure it. People have resonated with the approach of incorporating people into the assessment so that the healthy system includes people, not just fish. It’s not a panacea, but it will definitely help in the process of trying to fix things.”
While admitting he was “surprised” by the average score of 60, Halpern said the reaction from some corners of the world has been swift: Marine biologists with the Colombian government (ranked 94th) immediately invited a team from Conservation International to advise them on how they can improve their country’s score. The ratings are not relevant only to coastal dwellers; anyone who eats fish, escapes to the beach, or worries about the planet’s weather patterns should be concerned about the ocean’s health.
Dr. Chuck Knapp, director of Conservation and Research at the Shedd Aquarium, agrees. “Given the fact that the majority of the world’s population receives its protein from the sea, ocean health affects everyone, including people in the Midwest. What affects people on the coast ultimately will affect us, and the most basic [way] is seafood.” Knapp feels that the OHI can be a powerful tool for creating change when it comes to humans’ relationship with the health of the ocean. “The beauty of the Ocean Health Index is that it is a system that can distill very complex scientific modeling and data into something everyday people can understand,” Knapp explains. “That has the power to make things change and make the ocean better.”
Stone emphasizes that now is the perfect time to be releasing this seemingly straightforward rating system. “I’ve never seen a moment as open, with so much opportunity as this for the oceans, in my life. Even within the last several months the tempo has picked up, with Jim Cameron going to the bottom of the Mariana Trench [the deepest part of the world’s oceans] and new marine protected areas being announced with regularity.”
He is hopeful that the index will prove to be a missing link between talk and action, though he admits that measuring direct change resulting from it will not be easy. “One thing to be clear on: We are not trying to compare the health of the ocean today to a time when it was pristine, thousands of years ago. That’s history. We are in an era where humans dominate the ocean, and we are the first to admit we are measuring a troubled system.”
Beau Wrigley reflects that both he and his wife, Heather, are happy to be able to give back in a meaningful way to the ocean. He says that he is anxious to make time to dive back in, rather than just talking about the ocean around a conference table. “You have to stay out in the field if you’re going to protect what you love, right? I’m most happy in the ocean, and I can’t wait to get back in.”
Photography courtesy of the shedd aquarium/brenna hernandez (octopus); jeff gale (Wrigleys); courtesy of sterling zumbrunn/conservation international (madagascar, indonesia); worldfish (clams)
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