If the idea of a healthy ocean is subjective, then how can we devise a single index that captures this variability yet still provides an overall measure? The first part of the answer is more or less straightforward, although not without its own potential pitfalls. We designed the index to capture the full portfolio of values, or goals, that people have for healthy oceans. Just like a financial portfolio, one needs to know how all the pieces are doing to have a good sense of one's overall financial well-being.
The second part of the answer is much more challenging, and gets at the heart of the controversy about how health is defined. For each goal we set targets that allowed us to determine how close to optimal each goal was in any particular place. For some goals, such as wild-caught fisheries, decades of scientific research informed our choice of targets. For other goals we used so-called SMART principles—setting reference points that are specific, measurable, ambitious, realistic and time-bound. SMART principles are used widely in resource management, business and many other fields when setting meaningful, practical goals and assessing how well they are achieved.
One can quickly see where controversy may arise in the process of setting reference points. For the goal of maintaining biodiversity, we set a reference point of all species at no risk of extinction, not for species to be free of any impact from human activities. A nation can fish for hundreds of species and still achieve a strong biodiversity goal as long as every species is being harvested sustainably. We also treated all species equally, such that a species-rich place like Australia, where most species are at healthy levels, scored high even though 417 species are at risk. If you happen to care a lot about some of those threatened species, the score will not seem right. Similarly, for the goal of providing food, countries such as Canada and Russia are under-harvesting many fish stocks and were therefore penalized (the goal is to provide as much food as possible, sustainably), even though more fishing could increase pollution or potential habitat destruction.
Similar framing of the conservation challenge has been happening on land for awhile now: How can conservation be achieved given the necessary agricultural and urban modifications to the landscape? One answer is that conservation organizations are focusing more on the value of patchwork landscapes. Rather than press for wilderness or pristine areas, for example, they are focusing on undisturbed forest adjacent to farmland, which can also promote crop yield by supporting populations of pollinating insects, or city parks that can promote biodiversity along with recreation. By recognizing the value of these patchwork landscapes, conservation priorities shift dramatically. This paradigm shift seems to be happening more slowly for the ocean, in part because people do not live there, which creates an impression that we are not as directly connected as we are to land. It is now clear, however, that people are intimately connected to the ocean in diverse and important ways. All three big conservation organizations have recently reorganized their marine efforts to embrace the idea that people are part of nature. Interestingly, however, the Ocean Health Index is the first to put these ideas into action in assessing ecosystem health. Some experts are already interested in adopting it for freshwater lakes and rivers.
Remaking conservation for the future
The initial calculation of the index is not meant to be the last word, but instead a pioneering first attempt. Later this year we will roll out its application in the U.S., Fiji and Brazil. These are the scales at which most decisions are made, and we hope the tests will make the index even more accurate and relevant. The index, for example, could help inform whether to expand offshore wind energy in the U.S., whether land or ocean conservation measures will benefit coral reefs in Fiji, and how marine zoning plans in Brazil may affect overall ocean health by allocating different uses to different parts of the ocean.