Heather Leslie: Measuring ocean health

Sustainable management of a huge, complex and valuable resource such as the ocean requires a comprehensive metric that did not exist until now. In the Aug. 16 edition of Nature a broad group of scientists including Heather Leslie, the Sharpe Assistant Professor of Environmental Studies, describes the Ocean Health Index. The index rates coastal places, from regions to nations, on 10 goals: artisanal fishing opportunity, biodiversity, carbon storage, clean waters, coastal livelihoods and economies, coastal protection, food provision, natural products, sense of place, and tourism and recreation. Leslie recently answered questions posed by David Orenstein.

How does the Ocean Health Index’s focus on integrating human factors make it different and valuable?

Recognizing people’s integral roles in ocean ecosystems, this index evaluates how well the ocean provides 10 key benefits to people and how well we are protecting its ability to do so in the future.

Humans are part of ocean ecosystems. Everywhere. We tend to think of healthy oceans as places where people are absent — the classic image of a desert tropical island. But the reality is that oceans are peopled and have been for millennia.

People receive many different benefits from coastal and ocean places, including food, clean water, protection from coastal storms, and opportunities for employment, tourism, and recreation. Moreover, coasts hold special cultural and spiritual value for many of us.

The Ocean Health Index captures the multifaceted, two-way interactions between people and oceans using the best available science. By integrating information from many different disciplines and sectors, the index represents a significant advance over conventional single-sector approaches to assessing ocean condition.

While other indices have tracked various economic, social, and environmental elements related to the oceans, this is the first index to track ocean health. Ours is the first ocean assessment tool that scientifically compares and combines key elements from all dimensions of the ocean’s health — biological, physical, economic and social — so that leaders, managers and the public can promote an increasingly beneficial future for all ocean life, including us.

Heather Leslie. “This is really the beginning of the research effort, rather than the end.” Image credit: Brown University

How did the team choose the 10 goals that guide the index?

Our team of marine science, economics, and social science experts selected the goals after a thorough review of the existing literature containing information on what people expect from the ocean. We also reviewed the literature describing the pressures currently affecting ocean species, habitats, and ecosystems and recommendations reported by major international conferences or included in international treaties or national policy frameworks regarding how to mitigate those pressures. Based on these analyses we were able to group the various human expectations into 10 categories or goals. These goals are closely related to or in support of those used in international efforts such as the U.N. Millennium Development Goals, Convention on Biological Diversity and others.

How do you hope policy makers will use the index?

We developed the index to be a transparent and flexible tool that people can use to help synthesize the tremendous information we have about human–ocean connections. The results of the index — both these global scale analyses as well as more regional and local scale efforts that are ongoing — can help identify and quantify the implications of an action for overall ocean health, enabling leaders and the public to evaluate actions more clearly, broadly, and holistically.

Take us inside one of the goal scores. What goes into the “coastal protection” score, for example?

This goal captures the amount of protection provided by marine and coastal habitats to coastal areas that people value. These include both inhabited areas (i.e., homes and other structures) as well as uninhabited areas (i.e., national seashores and parks). The habitats that provide protection to coastal areas for which we have global data include mangroves, coral reefs, seagrasses, salt marshes, and sea ice.

The condition of each goal is based on four dimensions: present status, recent trend, current pressures, and factors that promote resilience. In this way, the scores for this and the other nine goals reflect not only the current ability of the ocean system to provide this benefit, but also the system’s likely future capacity.

What has been the reaction to the Ocean Health Index since you and colleagues presented it at AAAS in February?

Reactions to our AAAS session overall were very positive. A number of scientists — particularly those active in fisheries management — commented on the potential impact of having such a holistic tool to help inform management decisions. One leading fisheries researcher commended our team for really pushing the envelope on synthesizing and translating the understanding of human–ocean interactions, declaring the work state of the art. However, there also were some strong negative reactions — and I expect we’ll continue to see that same dichotomy in the coming weeks.

We see this project as much as a conversation starter as anything else. The scientific community’s understanding of what “including humans” in marine ecosystem analyses means is so diverse; we need to get beyond those and provide information and tools (like the Ocean Health Index) that can help society improve stewardship and sustainable use of our oceans.

What has your role been within this collaboration?

As a member of the scientific working group that developed the conceptual framework on which the Ocean Health Index is based, I contributed knowledge on coastal ecology and coupled coastal marine-human systems in particular. My experiences translating science to marine managers and policy audiences in New England and the Pacific coast, as well as at the national level, enabled me to help us develop scenarios for realistic policy-relevant applications of this tool. It’s been a really exciting and interdisciplinary project, involving more than 65 experts in diverse aspects of marine science from many leading universities, laboratories, and government agencies.

For me, this is really the beginning of the research effort, rather than the end. Now that we have a published framework, I look forward to the dialogue among scientists, policymakers, and members of the public about the value of our tool, and how we can improve it going forward.

Your marine conservation science research includes in-depth studies of human-ocean system interactions in particular ocean places, such as Mexico’s Gulf of California and Rhode Island’s Narragansett Bay. Do you have an Ocean Health Index score for the Bay yet?

Not quite yet. Developing the conceptual and analytical framework — arriving at the list of 10 goals, deliberating how to integrate knowledge on current status and future sustainability of each of them, and then calculating the scores for each — has been a major endeavor.

Now that this framework is established, I plan to apply the index to help assess the impact of particular management actions. I’m particularly interested in applying the index in Narragansett Bay, given the long history of human reliance and impacts on this coastal region, as well as the significant changes in wastewater management (e.g., through the sewer overflow project, changes in allowable nutrient loads) that have already occurred or that are proposed in the coming years. The index could provide a transparent means of assessing how such management measures influence not just water quality per se, but also the many other benefits provided by this coastal system.

The Ocean Health Index also could be incredibly useful at a regional level, as organizations like the Northeast Regional Ocean Council implement actions in response to the U.S. National Ocean Policy. How will we know that these actions are making a difference? We need a way to measure ocean health, and with this index, we now have one.

I also hope to apply the index in the Gulf of California in northwest Mexico. There, intensive human impacts are a more recent phenomenon (at least in comparison with the lengthy fishing and industrial history of Narragansett Bay). As local communities and the government fisheries agency consider implementing marine protected areas, catch shares, and other marine management measures, I am interested to explore how such actions affect not just fisheries, but the entire portfolio of benefits provided by this incredibly productive marine system. The Ocean Health Index provides a framework for doing just that, and one that will accommodate the variable quality of ecological and economic data we have in the Gulf region.

– By David Orenstein

*Source: Brown University

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