Exam results are in for global oceans

28 08 2012

A paper in Nature this month details an ambitious project to score the health of the world’s oceans with a single number. The results, ranking the health of various regions from 0-100 takes into account such measures as opportunities for small-scale family fishing endeavors, to tourism, to biodiversity. It’s a daunting idea, a synthesis of so many quite disparate   metrics from the concrete (fishing stocks) to the abstract (“sense of place”). But the result is a very approachable and readily understood score for marine waters around the world, permitting comparisons and contrasts from Indonesia to Cape Cod. Globally, the overall score is not great; the average worldwide is only 60 out of 100 points. But on a smaller, regional scale, the results vary widely.

Visual depiction of various scores. The outer black rings mark the 100 point mark. Colored bars show the scores of different nations on a number of measures. Overall score is shown in the central circles. (Jarvis Island has no human inhabitants).

High level science tends toward a ever narrower focus. As techniques grow more complex and knowledge inexorably expands, scientists must hone in on a single topic, single organism, or single molecular pathway to remain on the cutting edge. But what we gain in depth of understanding through this inevitable process can be a breadth of knowledge. Not just a single pathway, single cell, or even single species, but an understanding of how an entire ecosystem functions, and what makes it healthy or sick. Just as we need bench top science to elucidate the mechanism of a dread human disease, we also need medical practitioners who see the patient as a whole person, with physical, nutritional, psychological and social needs all requiring attention. The health of that patient is a amalgam of everything happening within and without her body. Just so is the health of an ecosystem influenced by what goes on within it and what is done to it. This new Ocean Health Index is an elegant tool to help us understand those impacts.

This ecosystem level approach has been gaining ground in recent years. No longer seen as something distinct from humanity, and valuable only for scenic vistas and meditative silences, “nature” as ecosystem is recognized as a hard working, service providing, human including unit. Ecosystems provide food, water purification, waste management and more ethereal, psychological benefits. In turn, humans have become recognized less as a foreign threat to ecosystems and more as a participating (though extraordinarily influential) member. The new view of ecosystems as holistic, and human including rather than fragmented and “other” is not only beneficial for the Earth’s future, but likely critical to it. I was listening to an old radio interview with scientist and eco-activist David Suzuki this past weekend. He said:

“Now, we know the forest, the salmon need the forest. If you clear-cut the forest, the salmon populations plummet or disappear because the salmon need the forest canopy to keep the waters cool. They need the forest to hold the soil so when it rains it doesn’t run in and spoil the spawning gravels. And the forest feeds the baby salmon on their way to the ocean. So we know the salmon needs the forest: now we know the forest needs the salmon. So you see this beautiful system where the ocean is connected through the salmon to the forest, and the birds from South America are connected to the northern hemisphere.

Humans come along, and we go ‘Oh, well uh, gee, there’s a lot of salmon here. That’s the Ministry of Fisheries and Oceans for the fishing fleet. Oh, the trees, well that’s the Ministry of Forestry. And the eagles, bears and the wolves, that’s the Ministry of the Environment. Gee, the river? – that’s managed by the Department of Agriculture and the Department of Energy. And the rocks, the mountains, that’s the Department of Mining. So, what is a single interconnected system, we come along, fragment into different bureaucracies and try to manage a complete system through this fractured way of looking at the world. And we will never do it in the right way when we look at it that way.”

We are a super-brainy species, and we will always need scientists to drill down on the details of how things work. But scientists, usually leery of overstating their cases, are at least seeing the imperative to make these broader claims. Of course, in a huge, multi-factor analysis of something as massive as “Ocean Health” there will be plenty of room to argue about techniques, statistics, methods, assumptions and a thousand other issues. But to paraphrase a professor of mine, “Arguing with a scientist is like wrestling with a pig in mud. Sooner or later, you realize, he likes it.”

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