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Ocean Health Index Accounts for Human Benefits

Oceans are peopled, too! Assessing all of the ways the world’s oceans directly benefit humans is not easy, but it must be done in any honest accounting for the Ocean Health Index.

With November elections upon us, we’re deluged with political speeches promising us happier and healthier lives, better jobs, a cleaner environment, and so on. It’s easy to get caught up in the political rhetoric, but it is also critical to step back and consider the source.

In a speech given on the 25th anniversary of Earth Day, its founder drew a direct link between economic and ecological vitality. “The wealth of a nation is in its air, water, soil, forests, minerals, rivers, lakes, oceans, scenic beauty, wildlife habitats and biodiversity … that’s all there is,” said Sen. Gaylord Nelson. “That’s the whole economy. That’s where all the economic activity and jobs come from. These biological systems are the sustaining wealth of the world.”

More than 15 years later, the late senator’s message resonates with a growing movement that aims to account for this flow of benefits from nature to people and translate it into action. Leaders from the scientific community, local governments, businesses, and entire nations are designing and implementing innovative ways to better capture the value of nature’s benefits in their decision-making.

As we discussed in earlier columns on the Ocean Health Index, some of these benefits, like food, are already a fundamental part of our economy. Others, such as having a clean beach or knowing that a coral reef is there (its so-called “existence value”) tend to be undervalued. That means we as a society don’t fully account for the true costs or benefits of our decisions on the planet.

This view of nature as a provider of services to people has its critics. Many assume that “value” means dollars and argue that a price cannot be put on nature. Yet values can be measured in ways that have nothing to do with money. Others argue that nature should be conserved out of moral obligation, rather than the purely pragmatic view of what it can do for us. Importantly, viewing nature through the lens of how people benefit from it does not undermine or replace its intrinsic value, but instead includes and complements it.

The bottom line is that in this era of unprecedented change (we’ve even shifted into a new geologic era — the Anthropocene),  it is vital to reconnect human progress to the capacity of the planet to support it.

About the Project!

Ocean health means different things to different people, and current assessments of ocean health focus predominantly on the state of the natural environment. The Ocean Health Index project was founded by Conservation International, The National Geographic Society, New England Aquarium, and the National Center for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis. The project aims to develop a set of indicators that describe ocean health according to how people benefit from and affect marine ecosystems. Here are the articles has published on the subject:


The Making of the Ocean Health Index

Ocean Index Navigates Between the Politic, the Pristine

Setting Targets in the Ocean Health Index

Three Reasons for Creating a Single Ocean Health Index

Ocean Health Index Accounts for Human Benefits

Ocean Health Index: The Audacity of Necessity

The Ocean Health Index is designed to do just this. As we’ve mentioned in past articles in this series, the index defines health through the delivery of a spectrum of social benefits, now and in the future. This set of public goals serves as a filter. One of the major hurdles we faced at the outset of this project was to whittle down the laundry list of hundreds of things we could include in the index to a more manageable number that would be feasible to assess in different places around the world.

The possibilities are mindboggling. They include things like pH, the strength of ocean currents, the diversity of fish, the price of wild salmon at local markets, beach erosion rates, or the number of jobs in particular sectors of the coastal economy, to name just a few. But a laundry list is not tractable, nor would it necessarily help decision-makers prioritize or understand the connections among the pieces. Instead, the focus on benefits to people gives us a basis to decide which factors to track and how to relate the consequences of ecosystem change to human well-being.

So we have incorporated people’s values in our definition of ocean health by using common public goals as a filter. These bins have another convenient feature — they give the Ocean Health Index flexibility such that it can be applied everywhere. Scientists of all stripes increasingly embrace the idea that humans are integral parts of all the world’s ecosystems, even the wet and salty ones. However, there have been few efforts to put these ideas into practice on the ground or in the water, particularly at geographic scales that are larger than individual coastal communities. This is one of our key aims with the Ocean Health Index.

What does a peopled ocean look like?

The image of a fishing community, be it Gloucester, Massachusetts, a small port along the west coast of Africa, or the floating fishing communities of Vietnam, is fairly easy to conjure in our mind’s eye. But a peopled ocean includes the bustling harbors of Long Beach, California; Lima, Peru; and Nagoya, Japan. Whether we fish, swim, sail, or collect shells or rocks along its shorelines, we’re a part of it. We harvest the energy of its waves, wind, and tides. We increasingly grow our seafood along its shores and in its waters. Even without setting foot on its shores or diving beneath its waves, the values we hold have implications for the ocean of which we’re a part.

When it comes to policy and politics, a definition of ocean health that includes the human dimensions is one that can translate directly. We regulate clean air and water, set aside protected areas, set fishing quotas, and so on, but rarely in a cohesive or coordinated manner. The result is that time and time again we create conflicts instead of fostering cooperation among different user groups and interests. Worse, we often do so unintentionally, because we lack a big-picture perspective on the whole system.

We want bountiful seafood, thriving coastal communities, and gorgeous places to explore. But reaping these benefits involves tough choices. One of science’s roles is to inform decision-makers and the public about the likely consequences of decisions and remind us, whether we like it or not, that Earth’s resources are not infinite.

It is human nature to assume we can have it all. Reality, particularly with an eye toward a sustainable future, tells us that we can’t, and that tough choices lie ahead. The Ocean Health Index will help us confront those choices with open eyes.

The views expressed herein are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect those of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration or its agencies.

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