These controversies highlight the challenges conservationists face in the modern age. Just 40 years ago there were half as many people on the planet as there are today; until recently conservation could in theory focus on protecting large swaths of land or sea. Now such efforts are exceedingly difficult, except in the remotest of places, because they would simply displace people—increasing pressure on other locations—or they would deny access to resources needed to sustain communities. To be feasible, conservation has to let go of the ideal of "nature untouched by humans" and embrace an approach that focuses on sustainable use and management of nature.
Controversy also arose from a simple but important semantic issue. Many people have said they accept the index as useful and appropriate for conservation and management, but they vehemently object to the use of the word "health" to describe such a practical outcome. If it were simply called something else, all would be resolved.
There are at least two problems with acquiescing to this request: First, the idea of a healthy ecosystem or healthy ocean is widely used in the policy, public and scientific domains to describe places in which humans are sustainably interacting with nature. We wanted the index to speak to those audiences and serve those needs. More importantly, though, we felt that, fundamentally, health is the right word to describe what management should be aiming to achieve. This philosophy is already gaining traction on land, where the sustainable delivery of nature's benefits to people (termed "ecosystem services") now underlies the approach used by the three largest global conservation organizations (the Nature Conservancy, World Wildlife Fund and Conservation International). The philosophy is also being explored and adopted by resource management agencies such as the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
Addressing the cognitive dissonance
The word health is of course more commonly used to describe the condition of the human body and mind, and this association is what seems to cause cognitive dissonance for people when the word is applied to an ecosystem. A healthy person is free of diseases, has good blood pressure, is not overweight and so on. These universal measures of health describe a system free of any negative impact. Yet many other subjective measures of health depend on who you are and what you most care about. A marathon runner will not feel healthy if her body mass index (a measure of fat to muscle ratio) is at average, medically healthy levels, whereas a typical person may be completely happy with the same value. People with different body types will feel healthy at different average weights, and people with different genetic backgrounds may have different standing pulse rates. A glass of red wine can promote health for many but be devastating for an alcoholic. Research published this year even found that up to 10 percent of people are less healthy when they exercise.
In the same way, one ocean community may highly value (or depend on) sustainable commercial fisheries and a thriving coastal economy, whereas another community will care more about keeping ocean waters clean and protecting biodiversity. Although all of the 10 index goals need to be met for a country’s ocean to be healthy—they are the universal measures of ecosystem health—the relative importance of each goal may vary from place to place. We cannot force people to care more about protecting coastal habitats or biodiversity than extracting more fish, for example. These value differences are subjective, real and necessary constraints that must be addressed for sustainable conservation and management of coasts and oceans. In some cases, neighboring countries that share waters may have different goals that could affect one another, but each nation can only manage for what its people want and would have to go to the negotiating table to find compromises if conflicts with neighbors arise.