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Oceans not providing enough food for population growth

In its second year of assessing the world’s oceans, the Ocean Health Index (OHI) recently reported that there is not enough seafood in the world’s oceans to sustainably meet the growing needs of the global population. The OHI has established ten goals for measuring ocean health, and this year food production received the second-lowest ranking.

“Seafood is a major source of protein for one-third of the world’s population, and it is estimated we will need 70 percent more food by 2050 to feed the growing population,” said Daniel Pauly, leader of the team of science contributors to OHI from the University of British Columbia, Canada. “The score of 33 out of 100 for food provision indicates we are not ready to meet that challenge.”

Emphasizing benefits to people

The OHI defines a healthy ocean as one that sustainably delivers a range of benefits to people now and in the future. To measure how oceans benefit people, the OHI has established ten goals, such as food provision, tourism and recreation, and biodiversity. Using data from available scientific resources, the Index calculates an annual global score that reflects the current status of ocean health in 133 countries.

“We depend on the health of the ocean for many benefits, such as food, livelihood and tourism, and the OHI indicates that the condition of these benefits needs to be improved in order to provide a healthy thriving ocean for our children and their children,” says Ben Halpern, who leads the OHI and is a research associate at UC Santa Barbara’s National Center for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis (NCEAS).

The global score for 2013 is 65, which according to the Index means that people would gain more benefits from the ocean if it were used in more sustainable ways. The goal receiving the lowest score, 31, was the sustainable harvest of non-food ocean resources, such as seashells, sponges and aquarium fish.

Many shorelines unprotected from storms

The 2013 OHI also assessed coastal protection, giving it a score of 69 out of 100 and indicating that further declines are likely. Coastal habitats – including mangrove forests, sea-grass beds and salt marshes, coral reefs and sea ice – protect coastlines from storm surges and coastal flooding. Forty-five countries that sit in the annual path of tropical cyclones had an average score of 52 out of 100. A score below 100 indicates a decline in the area and conditions of key natural habitats that protect shorelines from storms.

“Restoring natural protective habitats in storm-prone regions, in combination with sensible coastal planning and creative civil engineering, is essential,” says Greg Stone, executive vice president at Conservation International’s Betty and Gordon Moore Center for Science and Oceans.

A tool for achieving sustainable oceans

“I’m encouraged because people, organizations and governments are paying attention to the Ocean Health Index and what they can learn from it,” says Ben Halpern. “Not only has the OHI been adopted as an indicator to gauge how well countries are meeting their biodiversity conservation targets, but it is beginning to inform the United Nations World Ocean Assessment and was named by the World Economic Forum as one of two endorsed tools for helping achieve sustainable oceans.”

The OHI is a collaborative effort, made possible through contributions from more than 65 scientists and ocean experts and partnerships among organizations including UCSB’s NCEAS, Sea Around Us, Conservation International, National Geographic and the New England Aquarium. The full set of scores for each country can be found at oceanhealthindex.org.

by Simon