Measuring sustainability in our oceans

fish ocean health

In the first of our series of blogs on sustainability, SSCP-DTP student Michael Burgass explores how we can measure ocean health.

Oceans contain 99% of the space occupied by life on our planet, hold 97% of the planet’s water, produce more than half of the oxygen in the atmosphere, and regulate the earth’s climate. 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. Global ocean economic activity is estimated by UNESCO to be worth between $3-6 trillion annually.

Today more than one billion people depend on fish for their basic protein. By 2050, our human population will require nearly twice as much food as it does today as a result of population increase to 9 billion and (hoped-for) increase in prosperity and growth of the middle class. More food will be required from the oceans to help meet that growing demand.

The sheer number of people who use and depend on the ocean, coupled with the many unwise practices we adopt, produce problems such as overharvesting of resources, reduction in biodiversity, degradation of marine habitats, pollution and temperature changes, among others. We jeopardize the very ecosystems on which our well-being (and perhaps survival) depends. It is therefore critical that we manage our oceans sustainably so that we can keep utilising their many benefits both now and into the future. But to achieve this we first need to understand what we mean by sustainability and require a measure of tracking it, which in itself is not a simple task given the many different aspects at play.

What is a healthy ocean?

The Ocean Health Index (OHI) is a tool to quantifiably assess the capacity of our oceans to deliver benefits and resources sustainably. One of the initial challenges in creating  such a tool was to define what is meant by a healthy ocean in the first place. There is no set definition for ‘ocean health’ or ‘ocean sustainability’ and therefore it was up to the team to attempt to create one.

Participating scientists, economists and sociologists reviewed existing studies of what people want and expect from the ocean and thus decided on ten key ‘goals’. These goals include biological aspects such as biodiversity and natural products, physical aspects such as clean water, coastal protection, and carbon storage as well socio-economic aspects such as food provision, coastal livelihoods and sense of place. Indicators were subsequently designed to measure the sustainability of these goals with goal scores aggregated to a final score out of 100 for ocean health. The OHI is compiled annually using a global data set for every country in the world.

Tracking Arctic ocean health

My project uses the OHI and therefore sustainability is at the very core of my PhD. I aim to take the global methodology of the OHI and refine the models and use more local data sets in order to do a regional assessment for the Arctic Ocean. As previously explained, the concept of ‘ocean health’ or ‘ocean sustainability’ is one with no definition and therefore I hope to explore how this definition might differ in the Arctic compared to the definition used for the global assessment. Clearly the Arctic has many fewer inhabitants and therefore the provision of some goals such as livelihoods and food provision might be considered less important than say biodiversity or clean waters. By completing my work, I hope to achieve a robust indicator that can successfully track ocean health in the Arctic, through the sustainable provision of benefits to people.

The Ocean

You feed us,
You water us,
You let us breathe.

You carve out our coastlines
And keep the sun’s rays at bay.
You provide insurmountable beauty,
And an epic place to play.

We know this.
But show respect? We don’t.
We act as if you’ll keep giving,
But we know you won’t.

We are but a dot on this journey of yours
We will be gone in a blink.
But this dot has great power
It does not stop. It does not think.

The time is now to put a halt to our greed,
Consider years to come
And future mouths to feed.

It is not ours.
The earth we simply borrow.
It’s clichéd but it’s true;
It belongs to our children of tomorrow

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