We also will be recalculating the national and global scores regularly using better data as they become available. This flexibility to adapt to the best available science was intentional, and we hope it makes the Ocean Health Index useful in local, regional and international contexts for years to come. We also hope the index helps change the way people think about ocean conservation and management, and the kinds of information that need to be collected to inform a more accurate assessment of ocean health and guide strategic conservation and management decisions. For example, there is surprisingly little information in most parts of the world on the amount of coastal tourism and recreation as well as the degree to which the activities are being done sustainably, despite the sizeable economic and cultural importance of these industries.
We are not the first to face the controversy of explicitly including humans in setting conservation priorities. Other experts have made similar arguments and faced equal resistance from people who hold nature as sacred. Peter Kareiva, the lead scientist for the Nature Conservancy, recently published a paper advocating this point of view and has received no shortage of unsympathetic responses. Like many other global citizens, I am in awe of the diversity and complexity of life on Earth, and I wince at the thought of losing any of it. With more than seven billion people on the planet, however, there is no place left untouched by humans and little room left for unachievable idealism. The challenge of meaningful conservation will only increase as billions more people are added to the planet. Goals of pristine nature are not only untenable but can be counterproductive because they ignore what most people actually care about. For example, attempting to create a marine protected area for biodiversity protection without consulting local fishermen can lead to a paper park at best and at worst no protection at all.
Management is about altering people's behavior, not controlling nature. True change requires embracing people as part of the solution, improving their security and well-being, and empowering them to make strategic choices for an increasingly sustainable and beneficial future. Demonizing humans as the problem, and nothing more, will do little to motivate most people to action. We need to educate citizens about what is necessary for oceans to function sustainably and what is possible to achieve (because few people have personal experience with truly healthy oceans), but we also must meet people where they are. People need to eat and have jobs, want to recreate, cherish the identity that comes from interacting with a place, and deeply value spiritual connections to the sea. If we deny those values and focus only on excluding people from nature, conservation is doomed to fail.
Such pragmatism is not fatalistic. Instead, it requires us to focus on delivering the full range of human goals for a healthy ocean sustainably. Doing so will necessarily include protection in the more traditional sense, but will also require novel ways of thinking that promote and coordinate sustainable use of the ocean with ambitious but reasonable targets, rather than pristine ones. Such pragmatism requires us to recognize that people are a fundamental part of all ecosystems that make up Planet Earth, including the sea. This paradigm shift is happening on land as well as for the ocean, but slowly, perhaps too slowly. The Ocean Health Index offers a tool to help transform the conversation.