10/16/2013 10:12 am ET Updated Jan 23, 2014

From Gut Feeling to Science: Ocean Health Index Releases Annual Scores

I have dived from the ice-shrouded waters of Antarctica to the crystalline tropical belt that surrounds Earth at her equator, to the waters around my birth city, Boston, draped with long fronds of kelp and covered in colorful starfish. I've seen the ravages of storms, found plastic and trash on the bottom of the sea 18,000 feet [5,500 meters] down, and photographed expanses of white skeletons of bleached coral where there were once vibrant colors and masses of fish.

So I have a personal gut feeling for the threats to the health of our oceans. But it has been difficult to quantify this feeling -- to put it in scientific terms that can be monitored consistently over many years. It has been impossible to express the "So what?" of our oceans declining in biodiversity, water quality, or habitats. How will it impact our lives ... our future?

That's why the Ocean Health Index is critical at this time in human history. It defines ocean health by the benefits and services the ocean delivers to people. Conversely, it measures the effect people have on the productivity of the ocean. It brings together databases from institutions all over the world and quantifies the impact of data on the 10 "goals" that factor into an ocean being considered healthy.

The Ocean Health Index puts my gut feeling into a quantitative assessment of the impact of ocean health on human well-being. And because a thriving ocean is the most productive ocean, it defines the health of our oceans both now and in the future.

This year, the global score for the Ocean Health Index is 65 out of 100. So what? The Index answers that question.

When we see a score so far from 100, it means that our use of many resources like seafood, natural products and key habitats is simply unsustainable. If we don't improve our practices, we will gradually lose key services. Fisheries will provide less food, leaving our growing population in search of protein and omega fatty acids needed to survive. Polluted water will threaten marine life and make some seafood unhealthy to eat. Warmer, more acidic waters will threaten the existence of clams, oysters and scallops.

One specific example: this year, the Ocean Health Index goal called "coastal protection" has a global score of 69. This isn't good, but when you look at a map of where tropical cyclones occur every year (see below), you see 85 countries that are constantly battered by these storms.

We know that mangroves, coral reefs, salt marshes and seagrass meadows protect shorelines from high tides, wind surges and flooding from these storms. Yet in 2013, these 85 countries average only 57 in coastal protection. This means that in these areas the protective habitats have been lost even more than in countries that are not in the cyclone zone.

Recent studies show that each year the world suffers about US$ 26 billion in property damage from tropical cyclones. In 2008 Cyclone Nargis killed 138,000 people in Myanmar. These stories illustrate the threat we face from the loss of these protective habitats. The call to action is a matter of life and death.

You can't manage what you can't measure. The Ocean Health Index is a new tool for policymakers and businesses. It provides a scientific and transparent assessment of ocean health. It allows us to measure the impact of our actions and prioritize where we will spend our time and money to enjoy more ocean benefits in the future. It is our chance to change things -- while we still have the chance.

This originally appeared on Conservation International's Human Nature Blog. Greg Stone is the executive vice president for CI's Betty and Gordon Moore Center for Science and Oceans.

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