Can Ocean Health be Measured With a Single Number?

By August 22, 2011 September 27th, 2011 Ocean News
Ocean Health

The Simplicity of a Number

I love numbers. So simple. So round. So efficient. Whether it’s a low credit score, a perfect 10 from the judges, or a surprising miles-per-gallon rating on a car, a single number—if carefully and honestly calculated—can tell us a lot about a situation.

But I have to admit I nearly sprayed milk out through my nose when I read that a team of scientists, communications specialists, and government officials are working to sum up the health of our seas in a single number: The Ocean Health Index. It seemed impossible. The Ocean is so vast and complex, how could a single number ever capture a snapshot of its “health?” No small task for sure.

But then we regularly use numbers as indices to get a quick sense of how things are going in the world around us and even in our own bodies. If the Dow Jones gains 400 points, we consider adding to our retirement accounts or cashing out stocks to realize a profit. If the doctor says a patient’s temperature is 103 degrees F (about 39 degrees C), we start figuring out how to treat him.

Photo Credit: Steve Spring/Marine Photobank

The creators of the Ocean Health Index (which is due to launch in February 2012) see their numerical rating as a way of raising awareness and working with human nature and our love of simple numbers to improve marine policy. “[P]eople combine things in their head, anyway,” they write. “So why not help them do that combination in a way that is transparent and faithful to the best available science?”

Transparency does indeed seem important. Three leaders of the project, Ben Halpern (University of California, Santa Barbara), Karen McLeod (Communications Partnership for Science and the Sea), and Jameal Samhouri (Northwest Fisheries Science Center), are penning a series of articles for Miller-McCune Magazine that offers an inside look at the process of calculating such a number and what they hope to achieve.

And they have set the bar high for themselves, saying:

The litmus test for the success of our efforts will be whether the Ocean Health Index helps policymakers and the public to make better decisions about what they get from, and leave in, the ocean.

In so doing, we hope this project helps people avoid making unnecessary mistakes, such as sacrificing food security for biodiversity conservation where both could be served.

That’s serious business, and if it works, it will be wonderful to see. The simplicity of numbers—whether the Ocean Health Index or a sick person’s temperature—belies the complexity of what they are telling us. And simply knowing the numbers does not prescribe what to do next. But it’s a start. At least if we have a shared idea of where we stand, we can discuss the situation and agree on whether we need to do something and how urgently.

Numbers help us act on complicated matters like the economy and our health. Why shouldn’t the ocean have a number of its own that can spur us to action?

Get the inside scoop on the data crunching, political drama, and other challenges of creating the Ocean Health Index in:

The Making of the Ocean Health Index

Ocean Index Navigates Between the Politic, the Pristine

And please let us know what you think of the idea. Can it be done? Will it be useful? Will the Ocean Health Index become a household term like the Dow Jones or the GDP?

About the Author

Christine Hoekenga is a freelance writer, editor, and content strategist, specializing in science, natural history, and sustainability. Her love for the ocean dates back to childhood when she was knocked face-down by her first wave on the California coast. Since then, Christine has been immersed in marine issues as a student, a SCUBA diver, a science writer, and an organizer and advocate for environmental nonprofits. Her interests include coral reefs, octopods, marine fisheries, and all types of citizen science projects.

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