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Economic Prowess Not Translating to Healthier Oceans

  The Ocean Health Index was launched last year to much fanfare; for the first time policy makers and businesses worldwide had a tool to assess how well individual countries – and the world – sustainably use ocean resources and benefits. Measuring ten ocean health goals, the Index defines a healthy ocean as one that...


Photo courtesy Keith Ellenbogen

The Ocean Health Index was launched last year to much fanfare; for the first time policy makers and businesses worldwide had a tool to assess how well individual countries – and the world – sustainably use ocean resources and benefits. Measuring ten ocean health goals, the Index defines a healthy ocean as one that delivers a range of benefits to people, both now and in the future.

With the new set of scores released today, we can start to track how our policies and programs are improving the health of the ocean, or not. While the global score of 65 (out of 100) is essentially unchanged from 2012, there are some interesting takeaways from this year’s assessment.

Wealth ≠ Health

As might be expected, many of the lowest scoring countries on the Ocean Health Index – North Korea, Somalia, Angola, Pakistan, Ivory Coast, Haiti – are poor or have a recent history of war, ethnic conflict, or poor governance. Yet the world’s wealthiest countries do not see the same correlation.

Wealthy countries arguably have the greatest impact on industry and policy, so their performance on the Index is an important indicator of overall ocean health.  Yet none of the fifteen wealthiest countries (by GDP) break into the top 20 of the Index.  The United States, the world’s largest single-country economy, ranked #115 of countries scored, and China (the second biggest economy) was even lower at 165. The average score for the fifteen wealthiest nations was 65, which is above the global average but leaves considerable room for improvement.

Although the news seems dismal, there is cause for hope.  Recent actions and interest in ocean management by both the United States and China are promising, even if neither can exactly be called a leader yet.  The U.S. State Department is hosting an International Oceans Conference later this month, Oceans Under Threat: Charting a Sustainable Future, to discuss key threats facing the ocean and how the U.S. can begin to address them. And China has recently decided to use several natural capital indexes to assess and monitor their environmental practices, including the Ocean Health Index.

Food Security at Risk

Over three billion people depend on the oceans, primarily as a food source. Yet, with a global score of only 33 out of 100, Food Production from wild harvest and aquaculture was the second lowest scoring goal in the Index.  Interestingly, most of the high-scoring countries were island nations in the Western South Pacific, where much of the world’s tuna populations can be found.

Yet those countries that report the highest catches from wild fisheries – China, Peru, Russia, United States, India, Indonesia, Chile, Japan, Norway, and Taiwan – average only 29 on the Index, four points below the global average.

“The score of 30 out of 100 for food provision indicates that food security is at risk, particularly for those parts of the world that depend upon seafood as a critical source of high quality protein,” said Andrew Rosenberg, director of the Center for Science and Democracy at the Union of Concerned Scientists.

In this case, improvement is not just recommended it is imperative.  Seafood is an important part of a healthy diet for everyone, but it’s the primary source of nutrition for a large portion of the world’s population.

(See National Geographic’s sustainable seafood guide.)


About the Ocean Health Index

The Ocean Health Index publishes annual updates of scores for the ten goals based on a scientific analysis and using studies from leading research agencies around the world. The Index can be used globally, regionally, or for an individual bay. It allows for direct comparison across different aspects of ocean health and different locations in a way that is not possible with current assessment tools. 

The Ocean Health Index was developed with the contributions of more than 65 ocean experts including the National Center for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis and the University of British Columbia’s Sea Around Us project. The founding partners of the Index are Conservation International, the National Geographic Society, and The New England Aquarium. The Founding Presenting Sponsor of the Ocean Health Index is the Pacific Life Foundation. The founding grant was provided by Beau and Heather Wrigley.

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Meet the Author

Valerie Craig
Valerie Craig is Deputy to the Chief Scientist and Vice President of Operating Programs for National Geographic Society. She has strategic and operational oversight for the series of flagship programs and projects that are helping to achieve the Society's ambitious targets to deliver on the vision. She previously worked on ocean and freshwater issues for National Geographic's Impact Initiatives and Explorer Programs and oversaw the Lindblad-National Geographic Fund. Prior to joining NGS in May 2011, Valerie led TRAFFIC North America’s marine fisheries trade work, focusing on issues of legality and traceability in the seafood supply chain. Valerie earned a Master's of Environmental Management from the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies and has a Bachelor’s in International Relations.