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A Salve for the Seas

The Ocean Health Index was Commissioned To Give a Comprehensive View Of How We Can Improve Our Waters Both Globally and at Home on the East End.Hamptons Magazineby Jon Bowermaster

Long Island may represent the perfect dichotomy in the way man has treated the ocean. While the pounding surf and stunning horizon line give the impression of a wild, untamed resource, just beneath the ocean’s surface all is not right. From Stonington to Montauk, fishing fleets are at ever-greater risk, the temperature of the Sound is warming, red algae blooms are becoming commonplace, lobsters vanish, and disaster relief is proposed by government agencies almost annually over one problem or another.

During the past century man has put serious stress on the ocean we are so dependent on. We have carelessly overfished it, polluted it, dumped carbon dioxide into it, and heated it up. Perhaps the fact that it covers more than 70 percent of the planet has allowed us to think the ocean has an infinite ability to absorb toxic runoff, billions of pieces of plastic, 24 million tons of carbon dioxide a year, and still somehow miraculously heal itself, all the while providing us with valuable resources ranging from food to medicine.

Dr. Ellen Pikitch, a professor of marine biology at Stony Brook University and executive director of the Institute for Ocean Conservation Science, blames much of the problem on an “out of sight, out of mind” attitude people have long had toward the ocean and pollution. “It is a challenge to engage people who live away from a coast in the need to protect and restore the ocean,” she explains. “The ocean is critical to us all in so many ways. An unhealthy ocean will lead to a poorer economy, lower food availability, and a less healthy populace. We need to do a better job of educating the public about the consequences of ocean health to their families and communities no matter where they reside.”

However, Pikitch argues that all ocean-related problems are local. “Pollution and fisheries are both of great immediate concern to Long Island, and the two are somewhat interrelated,” she says. “Lack of adequate waste treatment, and run-off of fertilizers and other chemicals are major causes. In addition, overfishing has left our coastal areas depleted of hard clams, oysters, and other species, and in the past, high shellfish abundance kept nutrient levels in check. As a consequence, we have seen an increase in the number and duration of harmful algal blooms such as brown tides and red tides. These blooms are not only unsightly, but also impair growth and reproduction of marine life and occasionally result in fish kills.”

These red tides are of greatest concern as they can impair human health and even cause fatalities. “These dangerous red tides have occurred repeatedly in recent years, and large areas have been closed to shellfishing to forestall human health consequences,” says Pikitch. “Clearly, this is a case where there is a direct relationship between our own health and that of our waters. Also, these are serious problems, but they are problems that can be solved on a local and regional scale with the right kinds of efforts. There are some efforts in place, but these need to be scaled up and complemented by other efforts that will reduce inflow of waste into our waters.”

To try and stem the tide of ocean abuse, some of the greatest minds in science, conservation, and business combined forces to come up with a way to encourage cleaning up some of the worst of the ocean’s problems. The solution is a study of each of the 171 “Exclusive Economic Zones” (EEZs) surrounding countries with ocean coastlines. That data was collected worldwide and analyzed using 10 different criteria from Coastal Protection to Biodiversity to Tourism and Recreation; each country was then given an overall grade—between one and 100—that rates how it is measuring up. By assigning what are essentially grades is to give countries, regions, and industries incentive to clean up existing problems and invest in ocean protection.

The initial Ocean Health Index, announced this past August, is the creation of Conservation International, the National Geographic Society, New England Aquarium, and the National Center for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis. Starting in 2008, more than 60 scientists traveled the globe evaluating ecological, social, economic, and political factors for every coastal country and adding up the results. The highest score was given to isolated Jarvis Island in the South Pacific (which received an 86); the lowest went to the African nation of Sierra Leone (36). The US scored 63, tying it for 26th on the list, between Pitcairn and the Ukraine. The average score was 60, or as Dr. Greg Stone, Conservation International’s Chief Scientist for Oceans and one of the originators of the Index, put it, a “D.”

It wasn’t just remote islands that scored well. Germany ranked fourth, with a score of 73, suggesting its marine region is well protected. While the US scored well in coastal protection, it didn’t do so well in food supply, clean water, and tourism. The group that dreamed up the Index hopes it will become the lead indicator used by policy-makers and conservationists around the world as they try and assess what’s wrong with their respective seascapes and learn how to fix them. Dr. Ben Halpern, a marine biologist at the University of California, Santa Barbara, oversaw the project and wrote the peer reviewed paper introducing it in Nature. He says the response to the research has already been “remarkably positive and excited.”

“You can’t manage something like ocean health without actually having a tool to measure it,” says Halpern. “It’s not a panacea that’s going to solve all problems, but it will definitely help in the process of trying to fix things.”

While admitting he was “surprised” by the average score of 60, Halpern said the reaction from some corners of the world has been swift: Marine biologists with the Colombian government (ranked 94th) immediately invited a team from Conservation International to advise it on how it can improve its score.

As to the impact of the index, Pikitch is optimistic. “I think it’s a bit early to know what impact the Ocean Health Index will have on stimulating the improvement of coastlines among nations,” she says. “Perhaps some of the earliest ‘adopters’ will be nations that view themselves as competing with one another over ocean health considerations. For example, tourists might make destination choices based on the cleanliness of the waters, the availability of local, fresh seafood, and other components of the OHI. Nations will undoubtedly want to know how they stack up against their competitors and what they can do to improve their score.”

Stone agrees that now is the perfect time to be releasing this seemingly straightforward rating mechanism. “I’ve never seen a moment as open, with so much opportunity as this for the oceans in my life. Even within the last several months the tempo has picked up, with [film director] James Cameron going to the bottom of the Mariana Trench (the deepest point on Earth) and new marine protected areas being announced with regularity.”

He is hopeful that the index will prove to be a missing link between talk and action, although he admits measuring direct change to come from it will not be easy. “One thing to be clear on: We are not trying to compare the health of the ocean today to a time when it was pristine, thousands of years ago,” Stone says. “That’s history. We are in an era where humans dominate the ocean, and we are the first to admit we are measuring a troubled system.”

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