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The Ocean’s Health Score Is In: Barely Passing

Scientists just revealed first total measurement of all aspects of the health of the ocean. It’s not great. We’re averaging a D minus.

The Ocean’s Health Score Is In: Barely Passing
Steffen Foerster Photography/Shutterstock

60 out of 100 is a barely passing grade, but with enormous room for improvement. Those are the results of an ambitious project trying to quantify the health of the global ocean environment, including human impact.

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The Ocean Health Index rated 10 different parameters of healthy oceans for all 171 coastal countries around the globe, scoring them on everything from the ocean’s ability to provide food resources to tourism and biodiversity. The research was published Wednesday in the journal Nature.

Some surprises popped up in the final scores, which can be read like a stock portfolio. Jarvis Island, a tiny uninhabited Pacific isle, nabbed the top spot with a score of 86, while war-torn Sierra Leone got a 36. West African countries, overall, scored the lowest of any coastal region in the world. The study authors point out that these countries also rank low on the Human Development Index, suggesting a relationship between good governance, strong economies, and a healthy coastline.

The United States received a score of 63, just above the global average of 60. While this is a good sign overall, the country rated relatively low on aquaculture and sustainable fishing. In a country as big as the U.S., the scores reflect regional differences. Some coastal regions–like the West Coast–are better protected than others, like the Gulf coast. Germany, on the other hand, scored a strong 73. That’s because Germany’s marine region is well protected and provides high value to its people, said the study authors (it also has a relatively tiny coastline compared to the U.S.).

Overall, the report brought awareness to some areas that need improvement. For example, global marine fisheries ranked 25 out of 100, revealing that marine fisheries around the world are very unhealthy. It also revealed that the difference between the potential and actual net economic benefits from marine fisheries (due to the fact that we’re destroying them by removing all the fish) is in the order of $50 billion per year–equivalent to more than half the value of the global seafood trade. This is a significant lost economic opportunity for many countries.

To assess all the parameters in all the countries, the project organizers put together a group of 65 experts from around the world. In the past, researchers have looked at ocean conditions in separate areas like fishing or biodiversity. This study was the first time a holistic tool has been created to measure health as part of many goals, and included humans as part of the ecosystem.

“A pristine ocean was not necessarily the goal,” said Ben Halpern, the study’s lead author and a biologist at the University of California Santa Barbara. “We can’t effectively manage for overall ocean health if we don’t actually measure it. This index gives a benchmark for where we are and a way to assess forward movement.” In addition, the data from the study are freely available online so citizens from around the globe can learn where the successes are happening–and how to help regions that are floundering.

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