Can numbers save our oceans?

On an early morning run at New Brighton State Beach, I take the salt-tanged air deep in my lungs, grin at the seagulls shuffling out of my way, and glimpse the dark arcs of dolphins rising above the wave break. I count myself lucky to live beside the ocean—even when I’m forced to skip over dead seabirds or stop to pick up trash the tourists leave behind. In my family, a bad day at the beach still beats the best day anywhere else.

But our oceans aren’t doing well, and a crowd of ocean advocates is trying to change that, using science to evaluate ocean health.

“We’ve added plastics, toxins, carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, and acidification,” says Sylvia Earle, a woman dubbed “Her Deepness” by the New York Times for her lifelong dedication to ocean conservation. “It’s time to turn that around.”

“The world bank is blue and wet,” Earle says. “We can’t keep taking from our reserves without putting anything back. All that stuff we’ve taken isn’t free. Everything has a cost.”

One idea, posed by Earle, is to put a dollar value on the ocean.

“A live fish in the ocean, what’s it worth?” she asks.

I was there when Earle threw the million-dollar question to a room full of ocean activists at the BLUE Ocean Film Festival & Conservation Event held in Monterey. The room starts humming with quick conversations.

My brain buzzes with more questions: Can you create a currency exchange for natural resources? A dollar for every dolphin? A penny for a plover? I’ve lived beside the beach all my life and never thought about monetizing the water world. Would it work?

Greg Stone is one of those people who believes that money talks. He says you can’t manage what you can’t measure. As senior vice president and chief scientist for Oceans, at Conservation International, he led a coalition to create the Ocean Health Index, a comprehensive health assessment using ten different values, distilled down to one number, to rate the well being of the water. Scaled from the lowest value, zero, up to 100, the OHI provides a way to assess and compare each country’s ocean rank.

Eventually, Stone hopes to gather enough information to pinpoint ocean health everywhere, beach by beach. Currently, the average global OHI number is 60, based on assessments near the ocean of 177 countries. The healthiest ocean site right now is Jarvis Island with an OHI of 86. Poland holds the lowest is overall rank of 42.

It isn’t a dollar sign, but the OHI converts an abstract concept into a tangible number that Stone hopes will build awareness and give people a different way to think about the ocean.

The OHI has merit. It’s easier to deal with concrete numbers than grapple with fluid concepts. Reports of dying coral reefs, plummeting sea-life populations, and depleted nutrients, have ocean advocates hustling to find a message that makes everyone want to become an ocean champion.

I’m on board. Now, when I run barefoot on my beach, I’m not just seeing the water and the wildlife, I’m wondering when New Brighton beach will be ranked. I want everyone in California to know how our coast rates. (Those rankings aren’t available yet, but the US oceans rated 63 on the index and rank 26 among the world’s countries). For once, I want to be a number. And, I want it to make a difference.

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One Response to Can numbers save our oceans?

  1. Georgette Gosman 12 July, 2013 at 5:18 pm #

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