5 surprising places that are improving ocean health

As Conservation News wrote in February, if the Earth’s oceans were a man, he would not be the picture of health.

At least — for now — his condition is stable.

A tool developed by Conservation International (CI) and partners to provide governments, communities and businesses with the data they need to make sustainable decisions about ocean use has given the ocean its annual check-up. Its health “score”: 71 out of 100, the same as last year. While the score, calculated using the Ocean Health Index (OHI), isn’t as high as it could be, it doesn’t paint as grim a picture as it seems, according to one expert.

“This score sends a message that the ocean isn’t ‘dying’ the way many people think, but that people and marine life will fare much better when we use it in more sustainable ways,” said Steve Katona, OHI’s managing director.

There’s more to this story, though, than the overall score.

The Ocean Health Index measures against 10 indicators including food provision, carbon storage and coastal livelihoods. By compiling the best available global data from multiple sources — satellites, habitat surveys, economic reports, tourism studies, U.N. fishery reports and more — the OHI generates “scores” for  the coasts and oceans (out to 200 nautical miles) of all coastal countries and their territories.

While the ocean’s health may be middling on a global level, OHI is being used on a local level to help nurse marine habitats back to health in places around the world. Examples from many countries and territories, such as the five below,  are showing that ocean health can steadily be achieved, country by country:

  1. Tuvalu: Leading in food provision

With a food provision score of 96, Tuvalu, a tiny remote Pacific island nation between Hawaii and Australia, is leading the world in the goal to capture and raise the maximum amount of seafood — sustainably. A partner to numerous multinational agreements for managing fisheries and tuna stocks, Tuvalu has great incentive to conserve fish stocks, both to feed its own population of about 11,000 and to support its economy by selling licenses for other nations to fish within its giant (larger than Texas)  exclusive economic zone.

  1. Chile: Raising the bar on sustainable mariculture

“Mariculture,” a type of fish farming that raises marine fish and shellfish, provides food, livelihoods and export revenue for coastal communities. Chile was one of eight countries that scored a perfect 100 for this goal. Chile raises mussels, scallops, oysters and abalone, but salmon is its main product; the country is the world’s second-largest salmon producer. Despite its benefits, mariculture can have substantial negative impacts on biodiversity, coastal habitats and water quality if not carefully done. Such harm would be registered in decreased scores for other OHI goals.

3. Bangladesh: Fighting climate change and coastal erosion

An encouraging 24 regions, including Bangladesh, scored a perfect 100 on the goal to reduce climate change by conserving and restoring coastal habitats that sequester large amounts of carbon, such as mangrove forests, seagrass beds and salt marshes, to 1980s levels. Bangladesh also scored 100 in “coastal protection” — important news for a country thought to be among the most vulnerable to serious climate change impacts such as sea-level rise. Bangladesh has succeeded in both goals by maintaining the extent and condition of its mangrove forests, including 6,000 square miles of the magnificent Sundarbans (“beautiful forest” in Bengali) located along the southern coast where the country’s major rivers flow into the Bay of Bengal. A UNESCO World Heritage site, the Sundarbans are home to tigers, crocodiles, and rich bird and fish populations; they are also home to 4 million people who depend on the forest and its waterways for lumber, fuel and food. While mangroves and other coastal habitats cannot completely protect populations from flooding if climate change continues and sea-level rise accelerates, these ecosystems continue to harbor biodiversity, shelter important populations of fish and other seafood, offer opportunities for tourism and have significant cultural and aesthetic value.

  1. Maldives: Turning natural beauty into tourist dollars

The Maldives, a string of 26 atolls and more than 1,000 coral islands nestled in the Indian Ocean, was one of 22 regions that earned a perfect 100 in “tourism and recreation.” This goal assesses regions’ ability to obtain the economic benefits that sustainable tourism can bring, measuring the percentage of the labor force that is engaged in coastal tourism. Beginning in the 1970s, the Maldives took advantage of its clear waters, beautiful beaches and splendid marine life to develop tourism based on swimming, snorkeling and scuba diving. These activities now lead its economy, providing nearly 30 percent of the country’s GDP. However, climate change threatens the Maldives’ spectacular tourism success — and the country’s very existence — because it is the lowest-lying nation in the world, with average elevation of less than 1.5 meters (5 feet) above sea level.

  1. Saba: Conserving critical biodiversity

One of eight locations to score 99, the Caribbean island of Saba is working effectively to conserve the region’s rich variety of species and habitats, reduce extinction risk and maintain and restore marine habitats such as coral reefs, mangrove forests, seagrass beds, salt marshes to their extent and condition around 1980. Key to the Dutch territory’s success was establishing Saba National Marine Park, which surrounds the entire island from the high-tide line out to 60 meters (about 200 feet) depth, protecting coral reefs, seagrass beds and thriving marine life. The park has zones to accommodate activities such as swimming, snorkeling, diving, fishing and boating, with regulations that prohibit spearfishing, anchoring on coral, garbage dumping  and other harmful activities. Usage fees, sales of souvenirs and donations support operation of the park by the Saba Conservation Foundation and protect the large groupers, reef fish, green and hawksbill turtles, hammerhead sharks, whale sharks, manta rays and spectacular coral-encrusted pinnacles for which the park is world-famous.

The upshot

So what do these areas have in common? It starts with good governance, Katona says.

“Regions with stable and effective governments score much higher than regions where poverty, corruption, war and civil strife are endemic,” Katona explained. “Achieving ocean health at regional and global scales will depend on improvements in social conditions and quality of governance and management.”

Sophie Bertazzo is a staff writer for Conservation International (CI). The Ocean Health Index is a partnership between CI and the National Center for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis at the University of California, Santa Barbara.

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