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10/12/2017 5 reasons it might be ok to be optimistic about our oceans |



5 reasons it might be OK to be optimistic about our

Jul 14, 2016 / Kate Torgovnick May

Bigeye at Rapture Reef, a part of the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands Marine National Monument. Within this marine protected area, fish
species can rebound. Photo by the NOAA National Ocean Service.

Climate change, coral bleaching, ocean acidification, overfishingit

can be easy to feel depressed about theocean. But when you look at
the big picture of ocean health, some good news emerges.
Marine conservation researcher Ben Halpern callshimself an ocean optimist. But getting
there wasnt easy its taken more than eight years of research to reassure himself that
maybe, just maybe, our seas are not doomed. How did he get there? Bycollecting and
studying data from the oceans,and synthesizing billions of data points into maps that 1/13
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reveal previously untold stories in swirls of blue, green, orange and red. Heres a look at
some of the reasons Halpern sees hope beneath the waves.

13% of oceans saw a decrease in human impact between 2008 and 2013. In 2008,
Halpern and his colleagues at the University of California Santa Barbaras National Center
for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis created a map to look at 17 ways that humans affect
the ocean from fishing to plastic pollution. Some dimensions had been mapped before,
but no one had attempted to bring them all together cumulatively. Mapping one thing at a
time misses the big picture, says Halpern. This new map gave that high-level vision and
provided a baseline to measure against. Last year, the team published a comparison in
Nature Communications. While it probably wont shock you that cumulative human impact
got worse for two-thirds of the worlds oceans in thefive years to 2013, 13% of them actually
enjoyed less human impact. Thats nearly 50 million square kilometers where things are
getting better, says Halpern. These places give us hope that with concerted action, we can
improve the state of the ocean. He points to Germany, Denmark and the Netherlands as
places where focused action influenced the big picture. While climate change and pollution
increased there, strong regulation of commercial fishing offset the negative effects.

This map shows the change in cumulative human impact on the ocean between 2008 and 2013. The red and orange
areasreveal whereimpact increased. The blue and green? Where, against all odds, it decreased. Chart by NCEAS.

Ocean health improved 1% in the last three years. Halpern took the big-picture
approach a step further with the Ocean Health Index, launched in 2012. Just as a fitness
tracker monitors a persons heart rate and steps, the index measures ten health goals for the
ocean such as providing ample food, supporting livelihoods and having thriving
biodiversity. The index parses many different kinds of data and boils them down into a
single ocean health score for the world, on a scale of 0 to 100. The worlds score for 2015: 70.
Sure, thats the equivalent of a C- in school but in 2012 the world got a 69, meaning that 2/13
10/12/2017 5 reasons it might be ok to be optimistic about our oceans |

ocean health ticked up one point within three years. I wouldnt run out into the streets and
hold a ticker-tape parade, says Halpern. But we are hearing so many stories about the
decline of the environment that any improvement is, in my mind, a big deal. Many factors
contributed to the improvement, such as a sharp uptick in the protection of marine areas,
and coastal economies bouncing back from the global recession. Halpern also notes that in
2012, 20 countries received scores of under 50 and all but nine had pulled themselves
over that line in 2015. So why havent we heard about the improvement? Theres real
concern about the decline of the environment. Scientists and policy makers know were at a
tipping point, says Halpern. I think theres a fear that positive stories take the momentum
away. 3/13
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The worlds ocean health score for 2015 was 70. Manymetricsfactored into thescore some with high scores and
some with low, in a seesaw of impact. Chart by Ocean Health Index.

Governments use ocean data to guide policy. The Ocean Health Indexs cumulative
approach shows how specific actions can change the big picture. Mozambique, for
example, received a poor score of 65 in 2012, in large part because of the dramatic effects of
climate change there. In the years since, the government protected large marine areas and
strategically increased the sustainable harvest of natural products like seashells; in 2015,
Mozambiquesscore nudged up 8points to 73, above the global average. Sometimes, of
course, action is a coincidence, but sometimes its a direct effect of the index. After 4/13
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Colombia got a low score of 52 in 2012, government ministers gathered to discuss how to do
better. They worked with the Ocean Health Index team to prioritize actions and draw up
what they called their Agenda Azul. The plan has had a measurable effect. In 2015,
Colombia boosted its score to 61. More than 30 countries including Ecuador, Israel and
China have now worked with the Index team to help them better assess the status and
health of their marine resources.

Marine protected areas are a real thing now. In 2014, Barack Obama created 490,000
square miles of protected ocean around US islands in the Pacific an area thats about
three times the landmass of California. In 2015, then-British Prime Minister David Cameron
created the largest contiguous ocean reserve around the UKs Pitcairn Islands in the
southern Pacific 322,000 square miles of ocean safe from seafloor mining and commercial
fishing. Its like countries are competing to have the largest marine protected area in the
world, says Halpern, who points to a 2010 international agreement challenging countries
to protect 17% of their land and 10% of their oceans by 2020. Countries are realizing
theyve got to get going, he says. Marine protected areas let species thrive and boost ocean
resilience; the benefits come quickly and improve over time. Species that have shorter life
cycles and reproduce each year can respond within a year or two, says Halpern. It takes
longer for species like big tuna, grouper or snapper to rebound. They live for decades, and
dont reproduce until much later. So even 15 years after creating the marine protected area,
youre still seeing increasing benefits. 5/13
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One ideato improve ocean health: hanging nurseries for damaged coral. These staghorn corals havea better chance
of surviving this way, rather thanbeing transplanted into a reef. Photo by the NOAA National Ocean Service.

Aquaculture is also on the rise. Halpern predicts that one factor just starting to blip in the
Ocean Health Index will have big impact down the road: the growth of aquaculture, or the
farming of marine animals and plants. This practice will likely decrease the need for mass
fishing, and its becominga major industry in countriessuch asChile, Norway, Thailand,
Ecuador and most notably China. Aquaculture can be very sustainable, says Halpern.
In the coming decade, well see it take off and change the way that food from the sea is
provided to people in a positive way. Theres a real set of opportunities here. Right now,
the worlds score for aquaculture is 27 low, despite a 2% increase since 2012. But if it
becomes more widespread, positive impact could influence other goals. Shellfish
aquaculture sequesters carbon, says Halpern. Thats a great source of protein with
positive environmental impact. This is one part of the solution to addressing climate

Peopleaffect the ocean in ways negative and positive. A biologist reattaches a piece of coral that broke loose when a
boat hitareef. Photo by the NOAA National Ocean Service.

The Ocean Health Index has an optimistic idea at its core: that whats good for the ocean
can also be good for human beings. Restoring coastal habitats absorbs carbon while 6/13
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increasing safety for people who live there. Strengthening water regulations is good for
aquatic animals and beach-goers. Protecting endangered species can boost coastal
economies with tourism opportunities. Ocean health is not just about pristine-ness, says
Halpern. People are everywhere on the planet, interacting with the ocean. A healthy ocean
requires those interactions to be sustainable. The momentum is already under way.

Ben Halpern was one of 20 speakers aboard Mission Blue II, a TED conference focused on
the oceans, organized with TED Prize winner Sylvia Earle. Watch talks from the event.


Kate Torgovnick May is a writer at She can also solve a Rubik's Cube in less than two minutes.
Read more about her work at

aquaculture Ben Halpern data visualization fish marine biology

National Center for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis oceans



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