A Sea of Change – Getting the Ocean to say “Ahhhhhhh”

You know how a doctor judges your health. She takes your temp, looks in your ears, thumps your chest and gets you to say “ahhhhhh”. But how do you judge the health of something as vast as the world’s oceans? That’s a question Dr. Julia Stewart Lowndes and her colleagues at UCSB’s National Center for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis (NCEAS) here in Santa Barbara are trying to answer as part of the Ocean Health Index project.  NCEAS, the first national synthesis center of its kind, is a research center of UCSB which has helped ecological science become more collaborative, open, integrative, relevant, and technologically informed. The center’s unique combination of scientists and authorities in various fields helps generate new ideas and opinions by looking at one issue through a multitude of lenses which “generates new scientific knowledge at a broad scale.”

Julia tagging Humboldt squid near offshore from Pebble Beach, CA in Fall 2009. Photo by Greg Auger.

Julia tagging Humboldt squid near offshore from Pebble Beach, CA in Fall 2009. Photo by Greg Auger.

Dr. Lowndes grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area, obtained her bachelor’s degree in marine biology from UCLA in 2004, and before setting off to pursue her PhD, took some needed time off to volunteer in the Gilly Lab of Stanford’s Hopkins Marine Station located in Pacific Grove CA. While there she studied the fish-eating behavior of the California cone snail, Conus californicus, and became more and more interested in the interface between science and policy. Julia stayed at Gilly Lab to complete her PhD on the Humboldt squid (Dosidicus gigas) and their potential effect as an invasive species on Northern California’s economy and ecosystem.

Although studying the range expansion of the Humboldt squid and quantifying the ocean’s health might not sound like a logical transition, for Dr. Lowndes it was the perfect opportunity to take part in ground-breaking science that was not only useful, but that could be applied to real world issues. The Ocean Health Index was her chance to take the skills she had acquired as a research scientist and align them with her principal interest in large-scale management and conservation efforts. As a research scientist and outreach coordinator for the Ocean Health Index project at the NCEAS, Dr. Lowndes sees her work as translating science into a context the non-scientific community can latch on to and understand. In essence, she translates the technical science into more conceptual explanations and practical instructions to be used along with the software the OHI team has developed.

Getting Lost in the Kelp Forest

The sheer amount and variety of information contained in the Ocean Health Index is mind-blowing. You can virtually do anything from check on the state of mangrove forests off the coast of Florida to look up the tourism and recreation off the southern coast of Africa. I will do my best to explain what the purpose of the OHI is, and hopefully no one will be lost in an errant kelp forest on the way…

Broadly speaking, OHI is an interactive tool for the global measurement of ocean and marine ecosystem health that uses a combination of environmental, economic, and social data. You can think of it as a quantifiable assessment of the capacity of our oceans to deliver benefits and resources sustainably. OHI simultaneously quantifies the benefits we reap from the ocean while also taking into consideration the price this exerts on the ecosystem itself. Regions receive scores that range from 0-100% (100% being healthy) and are based off of ten human areas of interest – defined by OHI as “goals” – representing the key ecological, social, and economic benefits of a healthy ocean. These ten goals are given a numerical value (the index score) that’s calculated with the following four factors in mind: Present Status, Trend, Pressures, Resilience.

Scores are calculated using data from each country’s Exclusive Economic Zone which is defined by the UN as a sea zone over which a state has special rights regarding the exploration and use of marine resources. This zone extends 200 nautical miles out from a country’s shoreline.

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It is important to mention that a theoretical goal of 100% doesn’t necessarily mean that no one is harming the ocean; it simply means that the current “targets” for providing the maximum sustainable amount of benefits to society has been achieved. Think of it as a compromise between what we need from the ocean in order to survive and flourish, and what the ocean needs in order to stay healthy and thus be able to provide the aforementioned benefits.

Furthermore, it is also important to recognize that not everyone’s 100% is the same as different regions prioritize their goals differently. How does this bounty of information make its way to a computer near you, one may ask? Well, while there is no man behind the curtain causing it to magically appear, there is a team of economists, sociologists, and biologists who have banded together to make this an interdisciplinary project. The team is led by Dr. Ben Halpern, a professor at UCSB’s Bren School.


Members of Ocean Health Index team collaborate with participants from China, Colombia and Israel. Photo taken by Courtney Scarborough in 2013.

What really makes this project unique is that the aforementioned collaborators have made it so tailor-able; instead of looking at statistics for a whole country, you can find information that is specific to your state or region. Their highly integrative system even offers information about local cultural values and add it to the database to connect social and biological data in a way that was previously unavailable. Besides just looking really awesome and super clean, this database has the ability to let one particular country directly compare their scores to another. This has galvanized regions into making smarter environmental decisions that promote widespread positive change and foster more environmental thinking by outlining specific regional objectives where there is room for improvement.

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Now, you’ve read my explanation of how the OHI and a little about it, hopefully no one’s slammed their head against their computer out of confusion. Here is a great example of how this expansive database can be used to zero in on data pertinent to the state of our own waterfront here on the U.S. West Coast.

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A Tidepool of Change

OHI is one of the first comprehensive environmental databases that takes people into consideration as part of the ecosystem. Some argue that humans should not be included as part of the oceanic environment, because after all, we take from this resource but do we ever really give anything back? After all, it would seem impractical not to include people as part of the ecosystem when so many of us depend on it for our livelihood.

“More than 40% percent of the world’s population lives within 100 km of the coast, and ocean-based businesses contribute more than 38 million jobs and global ocean economic activity estimated by UNESCO to be worth between $3-6 trillion annually.” -Ocean Health Index

Screen Shot 2014-12-05 at 11.08.22 AMDr. Lowndes’ goal is simple: Get oceans healthier. In addition to showing the relative health of a portion of the global ocean, the Index can serve as an aid in policy and prioritization, to assess where management is needed and where action needs to be taken. In the end this project comes down to so much more than the numerical scores. It’s a way to get people from different fields talking and thinking about what needs to be changed, and to collaborate in making that change a reality.

If you’re thinking that this issue is just too big to tackle, or just too “sciencey”, you’re not alone. But like any problem, everything begins with one small step in the right direction. Here are some final words of wisdom from Dr. Lowndes: “Get involved in your local community. Encounter people who never think about how their actions can affect the environment and show them they can make a difference. Get educated, go to local talks, read articles, reduce your own footprint. Everyone’s small life change adds up to make a huge difference.” Environmental awareness and living is so important; we must be aware of how our actions affect our surroundings at all times, not just when it is convenient.

So my questions to you, cyber world, are as follows: how do you get people interested in conservation? How do you inspire someone to feel passionate about protecting our oceans instead of feeling obligated to? Can we come together collectively so that one day we might be remembered as the generation who stewarded global change? I would love to hear some responses and opinions!

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I’m sorry if I’ve lost any of you along the way, but for those who stuck it out I will reward you with some stunning videos from the Ocean Health Index’s own Vimeo channel! These videos are great visual examples that cover what I have gone over and everything else in between. Check out this link to learn more about issues currently being tackled!

If you want to find out more about what Julia and the OHI team are up to, here’s a link to their second project’s website, which provides some support to independent groups who are trying to create their own indexes of ocean health.

Header image: Raja Ampat, Indonesia. Coral reefs buffer beaches from the destructive power of storms and hurricanes, as well as replenishing sand through natural abrasion on the coral’s limestone skeleton. Photo Credit: Conservation International/photo by Sterling Zumbrunn

All other images courtesy of Ocean Health Index.

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