Menus Subscribe Search

Follow us


Setting Targets in the Ocean Health Index

• September 13, 2011 • 4:00 AM

Measuring success requires knowing where you want to be, and so a raft of targets is being developed for the nascent Ocean Health Index.

Almost a month after his plane plunged into the Pacific, U.S. Army Air Force bombardier Louie Zamperini was weary of sharks circling his life raft. As Laura Hillenbrand details in her New York Times bestseller Unbroken, dozens of sharks were tracking Zamperini’s every move, waiting for him to fall in the water and become their next meal. That was in 1943.

Since then, the number of sharks in the world’s ocean has declined by as much as 90 percent, and being adrift at sea isn’t quite as scary a prospect as it would have been three-quarters of a century ago.

So, which ocean is the healthy one — Zamperini’s shark-infested waters, or the one where more than 70 million sharks are harvested annually for soup?

In order to know if the health of the ocean is good or bad, getting better or getting worse, we have to know what our targets are. Targets are points of reference for assessing current ocean status, and they depend on personal perspective. Catching fewer fish is good for conserving biodiversity, but bad for food security and fishermen. An increase in coastal tourism may be good for local economies, but bad for working waterfronts.

Assessing health in light of these often-conflicting desires requires setting targets; developing reasonable targets has been one of the foremost challenges in creating the Ocean Health Index. Before we get too deep into the issue of perspective, why bother setting ocean health targets at all? First, it’s important to clarify exactly what a healthy ocean looks like. Clarity is essential for science, and equally essential for communicating beyond the scientific arena. It forces us to choose targets that are scientifically defensible. Quantifiable targets can provide policymakers with the raw materials to create ocean regulations that have teeth.

In addition, by bringing the endgame into focus, ocean health targets make it possible to track progress toward recovery in less healthy places and celebrate successes in others. Think about your reaction if your doctor told you that you need to lower your cholesterol, but didn’t give you a target number to shoot for. Would you be motivated to make lifestyle changes? Not likely. How would you know if you were making significant gains? You wouldn’t. These same issues apply to measuring ocean health.

So what are we aiming for? What do Ocean Health Index targets look like?

Simple questions, complicated answers. We have defined targets that are ambitious, yet achievable, conditions in a healthy ocean. Two examples include a biodiversity target to reduce the number of species listed as threatened and endangered, and a target for marine livelihoods that strives to maintain or increase the number of jobs, job quality, and economic revenue in marine sectors.

[class name="dont_print_this"]

About the Project!

Ocean health means different things to different people, and current assessments of ocean health focus predominantly on the state of the natural environment. The Ocean Health Index project was founded by Conservation International, The National Geographic Society, New England Aquarium, and the National Center for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis. The project aims to develop a set of indicators that describe ocean health according to how people benefit from and affect marine ecosystems. Here are the articles Miller-McCune.com has published on the subject:

The Making of the Ocean Health Index

Ocean Index Navigates Between the Politic, the Pristine

Setting Targets in the Ocean Health Index

Three Reasons for Creating a Single Ocean Health Index

Ocean Health Index Accounts for Human Benefits

Ocean Health Index: The Audacity of Necessity[/class]

Our focus on achievement is intentional, and contrasts with an alternative approach which would have framed the Ocean Health Index around limits, or what to avoid. It’s analogous to Zamperini deciding to focus on getting rescued while he was adrift at sea, rather than choosing to make his goal not dying. Sometimes a simple mental shift can make a big difference. A focus on targets is much more constructive than a focus on avoiding negatives.

The example targets above for biodiversity and marine livelihoods put into practice the notion that a healthy ocean is not a pristine ocean, empty of human beings. We have embraced the idea that people are central to creating and maintaining a healthy ocean. It allows us to establish targets that are ecologically and socially realistic.

The Ocean Health Index evaluates the current status of each benefit against its target. There are 10 benefits, each with several subcategories. For instance, one of the things people desire from the ocean is food, and food can be obtained from both wild fisheries and aquaculture, so there will be separate targets for each.

The targets for each benefit come in two flavors. One measures the current status of a particular benefit compared to the best possible value. This type of target is similar to human health targets, such as keeping our cholesterol under 200 or maintaining a normal body temperature of 98.6 F. For example, fishing too much — or not much at all — can, in the long run, lead to lower catches than would fishing just the right amount. Fish too much and you might not leave enough adults in the water to populate the next generation; some stocks will not replenish themselves as quickly as they could. Fish too little and you’re not catching as many fish as you could. So the Ocean Health Index relies on a target of harvesting the maximum sustainable amount of seafood from wild fisheries in any particular place.

The other type of target measures current ocean condition relative to where we’ve been. This is similar to the targets we think of for the economy. For example, what is the value of the GDP relative to last year, or what is the Dow Jones Industrial Average today relative to where it was last week? In the case of the Ocean Health Index, for example, we compare the historical capacity of mangroves and other coastal habitats to regulate climate through carbon storage 30 years ago to their capacity to do so today.

As we mentioned above, setting targets has been a challenge because people enjoy and use the ocean in so many different ways. To address this issue, we have designed “selfish” targets for the Ocean Health Index. That is, we define what is to be achieved for each ocean benefit one at a time. The target for sustainable seafood is not mindful of the target for maintaining biodiversity. The target for maintaining biodiversity is set without concern for the desired state of coastal economies. And so on.

Some of our peers have argued that targets set one at a time reveal a fatal flaw because ocean benefits don’t exist in isolation. In fact, our approach embraces this idea. We know that the different choices we make about how to manage the ocean have costs and benefits. Necessary trade-offs emerge in the Ocean Health Index because what’s good for achieving a target for one part of ocean health might not be so good for another part. Communicating this push and pull of different ocean uses as plainly as possible has been a cornerstone in our work. The solution we’ve decided upon is not a perfect one, but it is the best we can do given current scientific understanding.

In addition, the target-setting approach we’re using is not as strange as it may seem at first blush-we see it all the time in reports on economic indicators. Targets for all of them are defined to encourage growth. However, it is usually the case that not every economic indicator can increase at the same time. If new home sales decline, the fraction of occupied rental properties will increase. Similarly in the Ocean Health Index, if tourism and recreation attain target levels in a particular place, chances are that water quality will not achieve its target because of the pollutants associated with coastal development.

Measuring ocean health requires knowing where you want to be, and recognizing that not everybody will feel similarly. To answer the question of which ocean is the healthy one — Zamperini’s ocean, teeming with sharks, or an ocean that is (seemingly) safer for people to swim in, the answer is definitively both. The Ocean Health Index allows these tensions to materialize organically and transparently.

And, while Zamperini (or our mothers) are never likely to believe that it is healthy for us to swim in an ocean teeming with sharks, we may be able to convince them that some people probably feel otherwise.

The views expressed herein are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect those of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration or its agencies.

Sign up for the free Miller-McCune.com e-newsletter.

“Like” Miller-McCune on Facebook.

Follow Miller-McCune on Twitter.

Add Miller-McCune.com news to your site.

Subscribe to Miller-McCune

Jameal Samhouri, Karen McLeod and Ben Halpern
Jameal Samhouri is a research fishery biologist at the Northwest Fisheries Science Center (a part of the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration). Karen McLeod is director of science for Communication Partnership for Science and the Sea. Ben Halpern is the director of the Center for Marine Assessment and Planning, project coordinator at the National Center for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis and Research Biologist at University of California, Santa Barbara.

More From Jameal Samhouri, Karen McLeod and Ben Halpern

A weekly roundup of the best of Pacific Standard and PSmag.com, delivered straight to your inbox.

Recent Posts

October 21 • 4:00 PM

Why the Number of Reported Sexual Offenses Is Skyrocketing at Occidental College

When you make it easier to report assault, people will come forward.


October 21 • 2:00 PM

Private Donors Are Supplying Spy Gear to Cops Across the Country Without Any Oversight

There’s little public scrutiny when private donors pay to give police controversial technology and weapons. Sometimes, companies are donors to the same foundations that purchase their products for police.


October 21 • 12:00 PM

How Clever Do You Think Your Dog Is?

Maybe as smart as a four-year-old child?


October 21 • 10:00 AM

Converting the Climate Change Non-Believers

When hard science isn’t enough, what can be done?



October 21 • 8:00 AM

Education Policy Is Stuck in the Manufacturing Age

Refining our policies and teaching social and emotional skills will help us to generate sustained prosperity.


October 21 • 7:13 AM

That Cigarette Would Make a Great Water Filter

Clean out the ashtray, add some aluminum oxide, and you’ve (almost) got yourself a low-cost way to remove arsenic from drinking water.


October 21 • 6:00 AM

Fruits and Vegetables Are About to Enter a Flavor Renaissance

Chefs are teaming up with plant breeders to revitalize bland produce with robust flavors and exotic beauty—qualities long neglected by industrial agriculture.


October 21 • 4:00 AM

She’s Cheating on Him, You Can Tell Just by Watching Them

New research suggests telltale signs of infidelity emerge even in a three- to five-minute video.


October 21 • 2:00 AM

Cheating Demographic Doom: Pittsburgh Exceptionalism and Japan’s Surprising Economic Resilience

Don’t judge a metro or a nation-state by its population numbers.


October 20 • 4:00 PM

The Bird Hat Craze That Sparked a Preservation Movement

How a fashion statement at the turn of the 19th century led to the creation of the first Audubon societies.


October 20 • 2:00 PM

The Risk of Getting Killed by the Police If You Are White, and If You Are Black

An analysis of killings by police shows outsize risk for young black males.


October 20 • 12:00 PM

Love and Hate in Israel and Palestine

Psychologists find that parties to a conflict think they’re motivated by love while their enemies are motivated by hate.


October 20 • 11:00 AM

My Dog Comes First: The Importance of Pets to Homeless Youth

Dogs and cats have both advantages and disadvantages for street-involved youth.


October 20 • 10:00 AM

Homophobia Is Not a Thing of the Past

Despite growing support for LGBT rights and recent decisions from the Supreme Court regarding the legality of same-sex marriage, the battle for acceptance has not yet been decided.


October 20 • 8:00 AM

Big Boobs Matter Most

Medical mnemonics are often scandalous and sexist, but they help the student to both remember important facts and cope with challenging new experiences.


October 20 • 6:00 AM

When Disease Becomes Political: The Likely Electoral Fallout From Ebola

Will voters blame President Obama—and punish Democrats in the upcoming mid-term elections—for a climate of fear?


October 20 • 4:00 AM

Coming Soon: The Anatomy of Ignorance


October 17 • 4:00 PM

What All Military Families Need to Know About High-Cost Lenders

Lessons from over a year on the beat.


October 17 • 2:00 PM

The Majority of Languages Do Not Have Gendered Pronouns

A world without “he.” Or “she.”


October 17 • 11:01 AM

How to Water a Farm in Sandy Ground

Physicists investigate how to grow food more efficiently in fine-grained soil.


October 17 • 10:00 AM

Can Science Fiction Spur Science Innovation?

Without proper funding, the answer might not even matter.


October 17 • 8:00 AM

Seattle, the Incredible Shrinking City

Seattle is leading the way in the micro-housing movement as an affordable alternative to high-cost city living.


October 17 • 6:00 AM

‘Voodoo Death’ and How the Mind Harms the Body

Can an intense belief that you’re about to die actually kill you? Researchers are learning more about “voodoo death” and how it isn’t limited to superstitious, foreign cultures.


October 17 • 4:00 AM

That Arts Degree Is Paying Off

A survey of people who have earned degrees in the arts find they are doing relatively well, although their education didn’t provide much guidance on managing a career.


Follow us


That Cigarette Would Make a Great Water Filter

Clean out the ashtray, add some aluminum oxide, and you've (almost) got yourself a low-cost way to remove arsenic from drinking water.

Love and Hate in Israel and Palestine

Psychologists find that parties to a conflict think they're motivated by love while their enemies are motivated by hate.

How to Water a Farm in Sandy Ground

Physicists investigate how to grow food more efficiently in fine-grained soil.

Unlocking Consciousness

A study of vegetative patients closes in on the nature of consciousness.

Advice for Emergency Alert Systems: Don’t Cry Wolf

A survey finds college students don't always take alerts seriously.

The Big One

One company, Amazon, controls 67 percent of the e-book market in the United States—down from 90 percent five years ago. September/October 2014 new-big-one-5

Copyright © 2014 by Pacific Standard and The Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media, and Public Policy. All Rights Reserved.