Menus Subscribe Search

Follow us


Three Reasons for Creating a Single Ocean Health Index

• October 11, 2011 • 4:00 AM

As the gross domestic product shows us, a single number that represents the health of a complex and dynamic system can have amazing and perhaps unexpected power.

Just over 75 years ago, there was no easy way to track how well a nation’s economy and its people were doing. Data from all kinds of measures existed, but it was hard to interpret what they all meant. Responding in part to the dramatic declines of the Great Depression, the U.S. Congress in 1934 asked renowned economist Simon Kuznets to develop a method for gauging the condition, or health, of the United States. He came up with what we now know as the gross domestic product, or GDP.

Although criticisms abound about its utility or appropriateness as a measure of national well-being (including from Kuznets himself), the use of GDP has had an indelible and transformative impact on global economics, policy, and markets.

But why is a single index necessary or useful? Instead, why not track how the individual components are doing? Perhaps the value has become evident in the case of GDP, but it’s worth diving deeper into that question since it’s the philosophical foundation for why we are creating an Ocean Health Index.

There are three reasons why it is essential to synthesize information into a single index:

1. It forces us to make explicit the relative importance of the different components that we are evaluating.

Why not just make them all equally important? No one actually does this. People inevitably value particular attributes over others, they just do it in their heads. Whether it’s the national economy, choosing a vacation destination, or what to do on a Saturday afternoon, you assess the relative importance of all the variables you value before you make a final decision. When you take a date to a restaurant, you consider price, decor, type of food, noise level, how romantic the place is, and so on, and then decide based on which variable (or variables) is most important to you. In these cases, you are weighting the importance of different criteria and making a single decision.

Market researchers spend enormous amounts of money trying to understand what qualities are most important to people. In other words, they are trying to make explicit and quantitative the weights that people place on different decision criteria.

[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]

Those of us creating the Ocean Health Index are doing exactly the same thing. By combining the very different goals people have for a healthy ocean into a single number, we force ourselves to make explicit how important each of those goals is to defining a healthy system; we crystallize the weights we place on the different components. Some people will care most about jobs and livelihoods, for example, while others will care more about biodiversity conservation and clean water. There is no right or wrong answer. We all have legitimately different views of what we want from a healthy ocean. However, we need to find ways to reconcile these conflicting views, as decisions about ocean use (and non-use) affect the well-being of all people, now and in the future.

This may seem a difficult challenge, but any environmental management decision faces this same issue. We plan to generate weightings for different goals in the OHI in at least three ways. Our hope is to understand how perceptions of ocean health might change when viewed through different lenses: assuming equal weights for different goals (probably not right for anyone, but at least it’s egalitarian), creating weightings for the goals based on different hypothetical value sets (conservationist vs. resource extraction vs. sustainable user), and surveying people representing a diversity of interests related to the ocean along the U.S. West Coast.

2. It makes explicit and quantitative the trade-offs that occur among goals.

Although we divide and track each of the 10 public goals of ocean health separately, they are all connected by the biophysical world and human communities that underlie them. This vast network of connections and the limitations it necessarily imposes mean that the output of some goals go down when others go up. Every single decision related to ocean health — whether to limit or encourage coastal development, for example — has multiple consequences, some considered good and others bad depending on who is viewing them. Such trade-offs are ubiquitous in management and policymaking — if every situation were a win-win, politicians would be out of a job. By combining the goals into a single index, these trade-offs become quantitative and obvious, and far more informative for management decisions.

Take a situation where the provision of food from fisheries and aquaculture increases by 10 percent but this comes with a 10 percent decrease in biodiversity (a certain number of species or habitats are lost from the area). For those in need of a daily meal, this change will be seen as a welcome improvement; for those who cannot bear the loss of even a single species, that outcome would be disastrous. These issues, the bread and butter of economics and public policy, require boiling everything down to a single number to be able to fairly and quantitatively assess these trade-offs. Doing so gives perspective on how disparate changes influence the big picture.

3. It’s a much-needed communication device.

GDP has transformed the way we think about the health of a nation (and has inspired numerous alternate measures, such as Bhutan’s Gross Domestic Happiness Index). Regardless of the exact formulation, there is tremendous utility in being able to communicate about the overall state of the nation, a concept that resonates with a broad, diverse set of audiences and potential users.

The Ocean Health Index has been developed with a similar endpoint in mind. Ocean health is an enormously complex topic; the index rolls into one number the condition of the many potential benefits we receive from the ocean. This singularity has strategic value for policymakers, managers, and the public in and of itself.

Are there downsides to generating a single number? Rolling lots of information into a single number masks a lot of detail. If people only pay attention to the single index score, then a lot of valuable information is lost about why a particular place received a particular score or what might be done to improve it. By our design, then, one can look under the hood of the single value to see the rich array of information regarding the ability of the ocean to deliver individual public goals. This more detailed information is available for those more interested in specific benefits or trade-offs among particular subsets of goals.

It’s hard to know if Kuznets would be happy with how his GDP measure altered the global landscape, but since he saw its power in his lifetime, it’s unlikely he would be surprised that it did. Economic and policy decisions require an understanding of both the big picture and the nature of the interactions and trade-offs among the component parts of that big picture. Ultimately, we hope that the Ocean Health Index can have a similar impact on decision-making and public understanding of how we interact with and benefit from the ocean.

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

Ben Halpern, Karen McLeod and Jameal Samhouri
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. Karen McLeod is director of science for Communication Partnership for Science and the Sea. Jameal Samhouri is a research fishery biologist at the Northwest Fisheries Science Center (a part of the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration).

More From Ben Halpern, Karen McLeod and Jameal Samhouri

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

Recent Posts

October 31 • 4:00 PM

Should the Victims of the War on Drugs Receive Reparations?

A drug war Truth and Reconciliation Commission along the lines of post-apartheid South Africa is a radical idea proposed by the Green Party. Substance.com asks their candidates for New York State’s gubernatorial election to tell us more.


October 31 • 2:00 PM

India’s Struggle to Get Reliable Power to Hundreds of Millions of People

India’s new Prime Minister Narendra Modi is known as a “big thinker” when it comes to energy. But in his country’s case, could thinking big be a huge mistake?


October 31 • 12:00 PM

In the Picture: SNAP Food Benefits, Birthday Cake, and Walmart

In every issue, we fix our gaze on an everyday photograph and chase down facts about details in the frame.


October 31 • 10:15 AM

Levels of Depression Could Be Evaluated Through Measurements of Acoustic Speech

Engineers find tell-tale signs in speech patterns of the depressed.


October 31 • 8:00 AM

Who Wants a Cute Congressman?

You probably do—even if you won’t admit it. In politics, looks aren’t everything, but they’re definitely something.


October 31 • 7:00 AM

Why Scientists Make Promises They Can’t Keep

A research proposal that is totally upfront about the uncertainty of the scientific process and its potential benefits might never pass governmental muster.


October 31 • 6:12 AM

The Psychology of a Horror Movie Fan

Scientists have tried to figure out the appeal of axe murderers and creepy dolls, but it mostly remains a spooky mystery.


October 31 • 4:00 AM

The Power of Third Person Plural on Support for Public Policies

Researchers find citizens react differently to policy proposals when they’re framed as impacting “people,” as opposed to “you.”


October 30 • 4:00 PM

I Should Have Told My High School Students About My Struggle With Drinking

As a teacher, my students confided in me about many harrowing aspects of their lives. I never crossed the line and shared my biggest problem with them—but now I wish I had.


October 30 • 2:00 PM

How Dark Money Got a Mining Company Everything It Wanted

An accidentally released court filing reveals how one company secretly gave money to a non-profit that helped get favorable mining legislation passed.


October 30 • 12:00 PM

The Halloween Industrial Complex

The scariest thing about Halloween might be just how seriously we take it. For this week’s holiday, Americans of all ages will spend more than $5 billion on disposable costumes and bite-size candy.


October 30 • 10:00 AM

Sky’s the Limit: The Case for Selling Air Rights

Lower taxes and debt, increased revenue for the city, and a much better use of space in already dense environments: Selling air rights and encouraging upward growth seem like no-brainers, but NIMBY resistance and philosophical barriers remain.


October 30 • 9:00 AM

Cycles of Fear and Bias in the Criminal Justice System

Exploring the psychological roots of racial disparity in U.S. prisons.


October 30 • 8:00 AM

How Do You Make a Living, Email Newsletter Writer?

Noah Davis talks to Wait But Why writer Tim Urban about the newsletter concept, the research process, and escaping “money-flushing toilet” status.



October 30 • 6:00 AM

Dreamers of the Carbon-Free Dream

Can California go full-renewable?


October 30 • 5:08 AM

We’re Not So Great at Rejecting Each Other

And it’s probably something we should work on.


October 30 • 4:00 AM

He’s Definitely a Liberal—Just Check Out His Brain Scan

New research finds political ideology can be easily determined by examining how one’s brain reacts to disgusting images.


October 29 • 4:00 PM

Should We Prosecute Climate Change Protesters Who Break the Law?

A conversation with Bristol County, Massachusetts, District Attorney Sam Sutter, who dropped steep charges against two climate change protesters.


October 29 • 2:23 PM

Innovation Geography: The Beginning of the End for Silicon Valley

Will a lack of affordable housing hinder the growth of creative start-ups?


October 29 • 2:00 PM

Trapped in the Tobacco Debt Trap

A refinance of Niagara County, New York’s tobacco bonds was good news—but for investors, not taxpayers.


October 29 • 12:00 PM

Purity and Self-Mutilation in Thailand

During the nine-day Phuket Vegetarian Festival, a group of chosen ones known as the mah song torture themselves in order to redirect bad luck and misfortune away from their communities and ensure a year of prosperity.


October 29 • 10:00 AM

Can Proposition 47 Solve California’s Problem With Mass Incarceration?

Reducing penalties for low-level felonies could be the next step in rolling back draconian sentencing laws and addressing the criminal justice system’s long legacy of racism.


October 29 • 9:00 AM

Chronic Fatigue Syndrome and the Brain

Neuroscientists find less—but potentially stronger—white matter in the brains of patients with CFS.


October 29 • 8:00 AM

America’s Bathrooms Are a Total Failure

No matter which American bathroom is crowned in this year’s America’s Best Restroom contest, it will still have a host of terrible flaws.


Follow us


Levels of Depression Could Be Evaluated Through Measurements of Acoustic Speech

Engineers find tell-tale signs in speech patterns of the depressed.

We’re Not So Great at Rejecting Each Other

And it's probably something we should work on.

Chronic Fatigue Syndrome and the Brain

Neuroscientists find less—but potentially stronger—white matter in the brains of patients with CFS.

Incumbents, Pray for Rain

Come next Tuesday, rain could push voters toward safer, more predictable candidates.

Could Economics Benefit From Computer Science Thinking?

Computational complexity could offer new insight into old ideas in biology and, yes, even the dismal science.

The Big One

One town, Champlain, New York, was the source of nearly half the scams targeting small businesses in the United States last year. November/December 2014

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