Leaders or chimps?
Meet the Ocean Health Index (OHI). Crafted by a team of 34 scientists in the United States and Canada over the last two years, OHI is “a potential milestone for ocean management” in troubled years ahead, the New York Times notes.
The scientific journal Nature posted OHI online mid-August. Since then, the index has barged into the world media. “Marine scientists, for the first time, worked out a systematic way of scoring how the world’s oceans are coping with pressures of overfishing, pollution, etc.,” says the Times of India. “[This] will change the way we think about oceans and how they affect our lives,” writes the VOA’s Joe de Capua. “[It] will tell us if what can be done, if anything, goes wrong.”
Such scientific tools are critical for insular countries like the Philippines. Six out of 10 Filipinos reside along the coast. Seafood provides low-cost protein for a population that has quintupled since 1940.
Of 117 territories OHI studied, the Philippines limped in at Slot 105. We performed poorly in seafood harvests and sustainability of methods to protect indigenous species, Sen. Loren Legarda notes. We did well in access for local fishing communities and preservation of habitats that absorb carbon. “The challenge is to find a balance.”
Hit the replay button for 2010’s “State of the Ocean” study. We should respect oceans as “a life-giving miracle,” 27 scientist-authors from six countries wrote. “[Instead], we often use them as vast garbage dumps or as stores with shelves that never go empty… Conservative projections of how coral reefs respond to global warming must now be modified.” (Less than 5 percent of Philippine coral reefs remain in pristine condition.)
Recall also the governors’ meeting on the protection of the Visayan Sea last March. Only 10 kilograms of fish are available for every Filipino yearly—a steep drop from 28.5 kg in 2003, Viewpoint noted. (Inquirer, 3/3/12) More than 800,000 tons of galunggong, tulinganand mackerel are now imported.
The Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources has proposed a ban in 10 of 13 fishing grounds due to destructive fishing. Or look at the Sulu Sea and Tubbataha Reef. “Malthusian overfishing” has ravaged them, reports an earlier Swedish Academy of Science study. “For many fisheries, their status may be summed up as ‘IUU’ or ‘Illegal, Unreported, Unregulated,’” Angel Alcala of Silliman University wrote.
Squirting cyanide into reefs to stun fish “originated in the Philippines and Taiwan in the 1960s,” the UN Environment Programme recalls. By the mid-1980s, “more than 80 percent of fish harvested, destined for the aquarium trade, were collected using cyanide.” Misuse of cyanide spread to Asean countries, then leapfrogged to Maldives in the Indian Ocean, the Red Sea and the Seychelles. Cyanide decimated marine populations and wrecked vital reefs.
The irony is patent: We’re smack in the middle of the Coral Triangle—5.7 million square kilometers of tropical seas which are the world’s center for marine diversity.
OHI is a new system developed to continually monitor the health of the world’s oceans. “You can’t manage something, like ocean health without actually having a tool to measure it,” said Ben Halpern at the University of California Conservation International. The National Geographic Society, New England Aquarium, and National Center for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis backed the design and development of OHI.
The three dozen scientists—among them, ecologists, oceanographers and economists—grappled with old and new issues. Current assessments of ocean health focus predominantly on the environment. But ocean health means different things to different people. How do you measure, for instance, carbon storage among ocean benefits? Tourism is an important industry worldwide. But there is almost no data on coastal tourism.
At decision time, 10 components were selected for OHI. These include traditional benchmarks like food provision and clean waters. Newer yardsticks, like “carbon storage” and “sense of place,” were factored in. Thus, OHI indicators describe ocean health according to how people benefit from and affect the marine ecosystems.
“We have something to compare ocean health to next year, in five years, and in 20 years,” explains Karen McLeod of the Communication Partnership for Science and the Sea. “We have a benchmark against which we can assess and document progress and, where necessary, point out and hopefully reverse declines.”
“Don’t equate the OHI scores with school grades,” Halpern cautions. “The world’s oceans did receive an overall score of 60. But they don’t get an F for health. The score means there’s lots of room for improvement. But 60 also means there are some good things going on.”
More than 30 percent of coastal countries received a score of less than 50. Fewer than 5 percent scored higher than 70. Germany and the Seychelles were in the top five. West African countries like Sierra Leone, Liberia and Ivory Coast got the lowest scores. The United States scored above average at 63, with room to improve.
OHI confirms that food provision and coastal tourism can be substantially improved, notes Jameal Samhouri of the Northwest Fisheries Science Center. Both scored below 25 out of 100. This single composite score for the health of the global ocean has tremendous potential for raising awareness.
The Index is a vital tool that Filipino leaders can usefully employ. Failure to do so will invite comparison to handing a Stradivarius violin to a chimp.
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