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The Metric

Aug 15, 2013

Measuring ocean health: A conversation with Steve Katona

In recent decades overfishing, poor resource management, climate-change-induced acidification, coral bleaching, and a host of systemic problems have revealed just how twined the lives of people are with the ocean. Oceans are vast and obscure, so while we may be able to observe individual symptoms in isolated regions, visualizing health on national and international scales is itself an oceanic task. The Ocean Health Index (OHI), with its stunningly clear presentation of complex data, offers a compelling measure of ocean quality.

Jason Schwartz, a research assistant with the Yale Center for Environmental Law & Policy (YCELP), recently sat down with Steve Katona, managing director of the OHI, to visit about notions of ecosystem health, environmental performance measurement, and environmental indices.

YCELP: Could you tell us a little bit about the conception of the OHI? Why was it the right time for a production of this scale?

Steve Katona: The OHI was developed over four or five ears starting in 2008. A number of us were trying to track the pressures that were being put on the oceans. Everybody knew about them but it seemed nobody was doing anything.  On the west coast of the US, groups at the National Center for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis (NCEAS) located at UC Santa Barbara was investigating the subject of ocean health in the context of ecosystem management. On the east coast, I and some colleagues, including people at Conservation international, National Geographic, and the New England Aquarium were engaged with a feasibility study in the same subject. I met Ben Halpern and Karen McCloud and found out about the work that was going on at NCEAS and asked if I could be a part of that workshop.

Over the next few years, a group of scientists, economists, and sociologists came up with what we all thought was a much better approach to viewing Ocean Health than the old way of just looking at pressures and impacts.

The pressures and impacts, while important, only tell one side of the story. Very few people make impacts deliberately and many people would rather have no impact. If you could find ways to improve the benefits that are obtained from the seas and reduce the impacts that people have, then you would find a much more sustainable way to do business. And the benefits that would flow from the ocean would be much greater for people.

What we realized in working together is that people and ocean are no longer separate, just like people and any environment are no longer separate. We’re part of everything now. Whether we should be or not, that’s not the question. We just are. We are ocean people just as much as we are land people.

We are ocean people just as much as we are land people.

We found all the things that could be assessed could be assessed in ten categories, which we called goals. Take food production, for example. The expectation is that the ocean provides food for people through wild species we catch and through permitting opportunities for raising creatures through mariculture. We viewed those two goals as sub-goals of a food production goal. The target is to harvest or grow as much food from the ocean as can sustainably be done. The ten goals we selected each have a specific target and a specific reference point, and that’s the basis upon which they are evaluated.

YCELP: You suggest that the notion of health is a way of understanding the condition of ecosystems in a world where none can be considered pristine or free from human impacts. Even the term “health” reflects a normative take on oceans based on human ideals. Can you talk about how you anticipated criticisms of this kind of anthropocentric approach?

Steve Katona: That’s really a key question. It has two threads. The first is the health metaphor itself. It was controversial for at least two decades: the question being can you ascribe the word health to anything that is non-human. Of course you can, you can know your dog is sick or not. But then the question becomes can you use that term to describe populations, not just individuals. Can a population of dogs or snakes be healthy? We know we can do that to some extent. We know, for example, the koala population suffers from a particular strain of herpes that affects them and endangers the health of their species.

But then the question is whether or not you can apply the term health to systems or ecosystems. Are ecosystems healthy or not healthy? That’s a very complicated question. All of this stuff has set people to arguing. Is a system only healthy when it is pristine, when it is untouched by people? On one hand you might say that is a reasonable criterion. The problem is that there aren’t any systems that aren’t touched by people anymore. We’re everywhere, whether in person, or through machines, or through airborne or water borne pollution. Pristine is rapidly becoming a dream rather than a reality, even in reserved areas.

The imperative then becomes, since we are part of the system, must we have a new definition of health?

The imperative then becomes, since we are part of the system, must we have a new definition of health? The index posits a whole new definition of ocean health: that a healthy ocean sustainably delivers to people a range of benefits now and in the future. The definition is about sustainability and perpetuity, but it’s also about delivery to people. It looks as if it’s anthropocentric, it looks like it’s all about us, and in fact it’s framed in that way, but running through every aspect of the index is the awareness that the ocean can’t deliver benefits unless it is in good condition. That condition is not necessarily pristine—it can be, in areas that are so reserved—but it must have all of the species and habitats available at a certain reference point at least in order to be able to continue to provide those benefits. That’s what we mean by ocean health.

YCELP: It’s clear in the scoring that the health of the oceans in some indicators might contribute to its lack of health in others. Tourism, for instance, might adversely impact fisheries. Can you talk about how those contradictions are handled in the OHI?

Steve Katona: All of these goals interact with each other positively and negatively. Clean water is going to affect biodiversity and tourism and fisheries for the better. But also there are some negative interactions, in theory anyway. Yes, development of a coast for tourism, for instance, could reduce mangroves and biodiversity, or possibly clean water. There are tradeoffs between all these goals, and we’re not totally clear on what the quantitative relationships are yet, so for the moment we value them all equally in the global study.

YCELP: Can you talk a little about that weighting?

Steve Katona: Each of the goals has four things being evaluated. The first is what is, or present status, which is evaluated according to a very specific reference point.

We know that all those things were better in the distant past than they are now, but it’s just not feasible to go back. You can’t re-vegetate the island of Manhattan. So we put up a reference point of 1980 and agreed that if we can imagine restoring ecosystems back to where they were in 1980, that would be a good, feasible reference point for us. The current status is based on a comparison with the condition in 1980. That is 50 percent of the goal score. The other 50 percent is what we call the likely future status. The likely future status is composed of three things: the trend over the most recent five years of data, the balance between the cumulative pressures that would reduce the flow of benefits in the future, and the resilience factors that could improve the flow of benefits in the future. This isn’t a big future study or a big historical study. It’s only looking at the five years prior and the next five years.

There’s a reason we study likely future status in health. Take for instance biodiversity, whose goal score was something like 83 percent. When people who study biodiversity loss look at that number, they often say, “Jeez, that’s too high. We know that the situation is quite dire, why is the score so high?” Well first of all, when you look at the score, it implies that 17 percent of the benefits, of the score, has been lost in just three decades, remember that our reference point is 1980. And that’s not good. And second when you look, you see trends are negative pretty much everywhere. Yes the score could be worse than that, I suppose. It’s not on the whole optimistic assessment, even though the score is 83.

YCELP: To understand the pressures we face and what kind of resilience actions are even available to us requires seeing. It requires being able to see through the noise of information and impacts and understand the patterns, where those pressures might become legible to us. We tend in the conservation community to know that there are problems but not consider the way impacts are connected and co-generated. The innovation of the OHI is the fact that you are taking huge amounts of data and looking across disciplines and beginning to tease out those invisible trends. This is very relevant to us at YCELP and the EPI, so I want to spend a little time here. You guys did a great job of moving from a lot of data to telling a story. You are dealing with the ocean, which is so vast. You’re looking at 171 territories and countries, across ten categories, each constructed of many indicators. I’m sure there was a hyperbolic amount of data to sift through. But now that you are beginning to parse that massive amount of information, what are we beginning to understand better and see?

Steve Katona: Let me emphasize that the data analysis was done at NCEAS under the direction of Ben Halpern, without whom—without that team— none of this would be possible. There is also the Sea Around Us staff at the University of British Columbia, and also a lot of data analysis was done by Conservation International and the New England Aquarium. So there was a lot to get through, you’re right.

I’ll begin by saying that we only used global data, which is comparable from country to country. There are more localized data to use in some cases, but it might not be transferable from country to country.

YCELP: Yes but using global and transferable data comes with pitfalls. It can be reactive, first of all. Often that data is dependent on self-reporting or old datasets. Is the OHI trying to move us from a kind of reactive stance to a proactive stance in how we do conservation measurement?

Steve Katona: I think all indexes are doing that. What we know is the world is a wonderful and complicated place, and there’s gazillions of things to measure. What we sense is that some of those things are beautiful and useful in a number of ways, but some of them are truly critical to understanding how we need to change behavior or to measure what progress we’re making. The problem is defining where we need to go. The world needs to do that. So far, it has been a kind of ad hoc exploration of our little spaceship.

But now we really need to understand what the parameters within which we have to operate, whether they are climatic or in food production, or population or whatever. One of the key things that will come out of the Ocean Health Index and other indexes is: what are the things, out of all the things that can be measured, that we need to measure?

One of the key things that will come out of the Ocean Health Index and other indexes is: what are the things, out of all the things that can be measured, that we need to measure?

And of those, which are being measured and which are only being proxied? For those, the question is how can we develop the new measurements that are necessary, the new data layers? The planet has a long future ahead of it, and that future can be a lot more pleasant if we know where we’re going and if we do a good job of making sure we stay on course.

YCELP: Because the tale the OHI tells is so vast, the challenge becomes one of communicating it. You present the report in a gorgeously-designed website that, frankly, looked very expensive. Clearly making an articulate and vivid website was a priority for you and the OHI team. Can you tell us about the thinking behind that?

Steve Katona: You’re right, it was expensive. More expensive that we at first imagined. But from the start we reserved a healthy fraction of the budget for communication. What we understood from the start is that academic studies frequently result in a peer reviewed paper and that paper becomes part of the academic legacy of that study, which is essentially a pile of papers. What we wanted to do is make this index work for policy and people, and to do that we needed to make it break out of the file cabinet. The only way to do that is through communications. That costs money. Websites, film, video, maps, it all costs money, but we felt that without the expenditure and exposure of a good website, we’d just be left with another paper in the pile.

We also wanted to make it easier for managers and policymakers—the people who actually might spend a lot of time with the index—to become acquainted with it and become familiar with it, which takes a lot of time and skill, particularly in reducing complicated equations and computations to more accessible forms of information. We wanted to make something that people could look at and say, ‘Ok, I can do this.’ Doing that requires automation so that a person doesn’t have to go through calculations that computers can do for them.

I think collaborating with projects like the EPI and some of the other index projects is going to be really important. We’ve all learned lessons, and the opportunity to share them and figure out as a group how we can march together and gain strengths and improvement through cooperation is going to be really important. My hope is that we’ll be able to work together to create some sort of dashboard for Spaceship Earth that will be able to help guide everyone in the future, and to measure the progress we make on our planetary quest.

Dr. Steven Katona is a marine biologist and managing director, through Conservation International, of the Ocean Health Index. He taught at College of the Atlantic for many years and served as President from 1993-2006.

Jason Daniel Schwartz, Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies ’13, is a writer and journalist.