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Researchers at UCSB working with the Ocean Health Index recently delivered a regional assessment of the state of ecosystems, giving an overall positive score of 71 out of 100 to the West Coast.
The OHI provides a comprehensive evaluation of marine environments that can contribute to policy and regulation decisions in regards to the preservation of the ocean and its ecosystems. By scaling the health of the ocean, the index provides accessible data that can be used to measure and reduce environmental degradation.
According to the lead scientist of the OHI, Professor Ben Halpern of the Bren School of Environmental Science and Management, the index is a quantitative measure that scales the overall health of the ocean.
“What that means is in order for the ecosystems of the ocean to be healthy, the human communities that interact with the ocean need to be thriving, as well as the natural communities that are in the ocean,” Halpern said.
Catherine Longo, project scientist at UCSB’s Marine Science Institute and the National Center for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis, said the OHI is a way to track the state of the ecosystems and assess them with ecological, social and economic aspects.
“It is intended to assess the state of things that people want from healthy oceans, including sustainable seafood, conserving lasting special places, maintaining clean waters, enjoying coastal areas for tourism and recreation, maintaining jobs from marine-related sectors (e.g., fishing, tourism), preserving biodiversity, etc.,” Longo said in an email.
Halpern said the index defines ocean health as the delivery of a range of benefits to people now and in the future.
“We define healthy as an ocean that has thriving human communities as well as thriving natural communities and the only way you can do that is to allow people to use the ocean,” Halpern said, “but it has to be done in a sustainable way so that nature can continue to thrive now and in the future.”
Longo said the OHI assessment will help efforts to manage and protect environmental resources more effectively, as “measuring is a key step towards managing.”
“We can’t manage towards ocean health unless we know where we are, and where we’re headed,” Longo said in an email. “We can’t adapt management actions unless we keep monitoring progress.”
Longo said the approach taken with the OHI will be increasingly updated and continually developed.
“The Ocean Health Index is not an entity; it’s a conceptual framework that was generated by a collaborative effort across a large group of scientists,” Longo said in an email. “Reporting the methods as transparently as possible, and openly sharing the underlying data is intended to allow other scientists to understand, modify, and improve it.”
Halpern said she hopes the index will provide accessible data that will contribute to the decision making process of policies and similar types of assessments and decisions.
“Our hope is that it provides a base line of understanding of the health of the ocean along the West Coast and that future repeated assessments would allow policy makers and scientists to start tracking change in time in different aspects of the health of the ocean and begin to evaluate whether or not particular policies are having the intended effect that they wanted on ocean health,” Halpern said.
Fourth-year marine biology major Maria Nguyen from the California State University at Long Beach said the OHI is a pathway to information that will aid in the preservation of the ocean.
“Now that there is this Ocean Health Index, people have an accessible tool that provides stats towards an updated truth about ocean health and not just general global warming threats that people interpret as myths,” Nguyen said.
Halpern said the promotion of data sharing and open access practices allows people to connect to the efforts in improving the ocean’s health.
“There’s still a need for protection of the places that are really special to people, the places that you go to time and again. It helps you build a connection to the ocean and it makes people feel like they’ve got some place special to go to,” Halpern said. “A lot of those places are not yet protected sufficiently enough to ensure the cultural value that coastal areas have for people will continue into the future.”
According to Nguyen, scientists should continue to create and promote indexes such as the OHI in order to preserve natural environments.
“You can ask anybody on the street and they either won’t know about it or won’t have much to say,” said Nguyen, “but everyone loves the beach, especially because we all live on the coast so it should be a matter of great concern.”
Photo courtesy of universityofcalifornia.edu
A version of this story appeared on page 3 of Wednesday, June 25, 2014’s print edition of the Daily Nexus.