The National Center for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis (NCEAS), a UCSB-based research institution formed in 1995 funded by the National Science Foundation, recently created the first regionally assessed Ocean Health Index using the coastline of Brazil as a case study.

The NCEAS’s Ocean Health Index brings scientists, conservationists and economists together to collaborate and interpret immense quantities of data to generate high level information that can be useful at a policy level. The index comes in an effort in Brazil to improve ocean sustainability around its 7,000 kilometer coast, one of the longest in the world.

LeeAnne French, Associate Director of Communication and Outreach at NCEAS, explained prior to the NCEAS, scientists faced difficulty in sharing and accessing each other’s data.

“NCEAS was formed to bring scientists together to combine, synthesize and analyze their data so that they could create new knowledge to address the burning issues that face society today; questions that couldn’t be answered one lab at a time,” French said in an email.

Brazil was considered as a possible location for the case study due to its long coastline and status as a developing nation with a fast-growing economy. Relying heavily on oceans for economic purposes, Brazil has a national imperative to protect coastlines and oceans in a sustainable way.

Cristiane Elfes, a Ph.D. student in the Ecology, Evolution and Marine Biology department who co-led the regional initiative in Brazil, said the study of Brazil involved more localized, richer data sets that allowed researchers to understand regional patterns in greater depth.

Elfes said she was surprised to find that Brazilian states scored low in terms of tourism considering that Brazil is known for being a popular coastal tourism destination. She attributes the low score to the current lack of infrastructure in the country. Elfes also explained Brazil scores “quite poorly” due to “many years of overfishing along the Brazilian coast and lack of minimal regulations for maintaining stock health” among fishes.

Katie Longo, a project scientist on Ocean Health Index who currently leads an Antarctica Assessment, said the global Ocean Health Index focused on coastal oceans and the Open Ocean Assessment will fill the “missing pieces of the puzzle.”

Elfes said Brazilian governments need to take a more vested interest in monitoring catches in a systematic way in all of the coastal states. She explained initiatives have been made in the past to address the problem, but they eventually “die off” and that utilizing a combination of science and government is the best way to bring about positive results.

“This really needs to become a commitment of the government [to monitor catches] because we need that baseline information to know how things are going and to have more science to better inform the decisions. In a lot of cases, we already know that certain fisheries are depleted, and in those cases the government needs to put in restrictions and monitor those restrictions,” Elfes said.

Elfes said that in order to protect the environment, the Brazilian government needs to monitor fisheries more closely and consumers should be more conscious when making decisions about what foods they eat, especially shrimp, which are harvested in an unsustainable manner.

“Shrimp farming is very unsustainable because they cut down mangrove areas, and they put in these shrimp farm ponds in the mangroves. They are destroying coastal habitat. The loss of coastal habitat affects other goals, and they end up not scoring well for aquaculture because we penalize them for the low sustainability of shrimp farming,” Elfes said.

Elfes explained the Brazilian government has made progress, but there is still a long way to go towards correcting coastal issues.

“There are lot of people in the government that know about these problems and are working towards change. There are other segments and other people in the government that still need to maybe be convinced. There needs to be more political support behind it … The more that scientists and conservation organizations can kind of rally for these things, it should create more political will for those things to happen,” Elfes said.

Longo also explained research regarding the California coast is currently in review. Even though California earned a good score, Longo explained “there is still room for improvement” and that the results are not in the numbers themselves, but more so in identifying key gaps in the data.

“The U.S. west coast is supposedly a very data-rich place. It’s a place where there is a lot of investment in collecting data. There has been a lot of research that has been going on for a long time,” Longo said. “But surprisingly we didn’t find enough replicated information on habitats to use a long-term time series to look at how much benefits and services from habitats had been lost.”
This story is a Daily Nexus online exclusive.