If our country had one, its “national beach” would be the stretch running from Santa Barbara to San Diego, where the coastline not only defines the life here but also is imbedded in our national psyche.

Yet it should come as no big surprise to anyone that, during the past 100 years, man has put a severe strain on the ocean. We have carelessly overfished it, polluted it, dumped carbon dioxide into it, and heated it up. Perhaps the fact that it covers more than 70 percent of the planet has allowed us to think that the ocean has an infinite ability to absorb toxic runoff, billions of pieces of plastic, 24 million tons of carbon dioxide a year and still somehow miraculously heal itself, all the while providing us with valuable resources ranging from food to medicines.

Dr. Chris Harrold, director of conservation research at the Monterey Bay Aquarium, has been observing California’s coastline up close since 1985. He cites two issues as the region’s biggest problems, one very visible (overfishing) and the other nearly invisible (acidification). “Many fish species are virtually absent from the Southern California marine ecosystems,” says Harrold, “rendering them ecologically extinct in the sense that they’re so rare, they no longer play a significant role in marine ecosystems. This has gone on for so long and is so pervasive that it’s hard to assess the impact. Unfortunately, no baseline data exists to show us what the ocean off California’s coast looked like ‘before’ fishing impacts. But we do know that removing predators from systems (and most commercially and recreationally fished species are predators) has cascading ecological effects throughout lower trophic levels.”

But to Harrold, ocean acidification—the rise in acidity due to ever-increasing levels of atmospheric CO2 being added to the ocean thanks to our continuing dependence on the burning of fossil fuels—is the bigger problem for California’s coast. Though invisible to the eye, the way we are changing the acidity level of the ocean “impacts a vast array of marine species that construct calcium carbonate skeletons, including corals, sea urchins, starfish, and many phytoplankton and zooplankton,” explains Harrold. “The big problem is that we don’t know how marine ecosystems as a whole will respond to ocean acidification. So we as a society are conducting a global, uncontrolled experiment: We’re lowering the global ocean’s pH and now we’re going to see what happens. One can only hope that the ecosystem services that the ocean provides, such as seafood for human consumption, are not irreversibly harmed.”

To try and stem the tide of ocean abuse around the world, some of the greatest minds in the science, conservation, and business worlds have combined forces to come up with a way to encourage cleaning up some of the worst of the ocean’s problems.

The solution is a study of each of the 171 “exclusive economic zones” (EEZs) surrounding countries with ocean coastlines. That data was collected worldwide and analyzed using 10 different criteria from coastal protection and biodiversity to tourism and recreation, and each country was then given an overall grade— between 1 and 100—that rates how it is measuring up. The goal, by assigning what are essentially grades, is to incentivize countries, regions, and industries to clean up existing problems and invest in ocean protection.

The initial Ocean Health Index, announced in August, is the creation of Conservation International, the National Geographic Society, New England Aquarium, and the National Center for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis. Starting in 2008, more than 60 scientists traveled the globe evaluating ecological, social, economic, and political factors for every coastal country and adding up the results.

On a scale of 1 to 100, 100 being the highest, the best score was given to isolated Jarvis Island in the South Pacific, with an 86; the lowest score went to the African nation of Sierra Leone, which scored 36. The US scored 63, tying it for 26th on the list, between Pitcairn and Ukraine. The average score was 60—or a “D”—as Dr. Greg Stone, Conservation International’s executive vice president and chief scientist for oceans and one of the originators of the Index, puts it. It wasn’t just remote islands that scored well. Germany ranked fourth, with a score of 73, suggesting its marine region is well protected. While the US scored well in coastal protection, it didn’t do so well in food supply, clean water, and tourism.

The group that dreamed up the Index hopes it will become the lead indicator used by policymakers and conservationists around the world as they try to assess what’s wrong with their respective seascapes and how to fix them. Dr. Ben Halpern, a marine biologist at the University of California, Santa Barbara, oversaw the project and wrote the peer-reviewed paper introducing it in Nature. He says the response to the research has already been “remarkably positive and excited. You can’t manage something like ocean health without actually having a tool to measure it,” says Halpern. “It’s not a panacea that’s going to solve all problems,” he adds, “but it will definitely help in the process of trying to fix things.”

While admitting he was “surprised” by the average score of 60, Halpern said the reaction from some corners of the world has been swift: Marine biologists with the Colombian government (ranked 94th) immediately invited a team from Conservation International to advise it on how it can improve its score. The ratings are not relevant only to coastal dwellers; anyone who eats fish, escapes to the beach or worries about the planet’s weather patterns must be concerned about the ocean’s health.

Harrold thinks the OHI “is the most scientifically robust index that’s been proposed. To be useful as a policy tool or to influence public opinion it must have the same sort of recognition and acceptance as, say, the leading economic indicators such as the inflation rate or gross national product. It remains to be seen if the Ocean Health Index will achieve this level of recognition or acceptance. I hope it does.”

Stone agrees that now is the perfect time to be releasing this seemingly straightforward rating mechanism. “In my life, I’ve never seen a moment as open, with so much opportunity as this for the oceans. Even within the last several months the tempo has picked up, with [filmmaker] James Cameron going to the bottom of the Mariana Trench [the deepest point on earth] and new marine protected areas being announced with regularity.”

He is hopeful that the Index will prove to be a missing link between talk and action, though he admits measuring direct change to come from it will not be easy. “One thing to be clear on: We are not trying to compare the health of the ocean today to a time when it was pristine, thousands of years ago. That’s history. We are in an era where humans dominate the ocean, and we are the first to admit we are measuring a troubled system.”

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